Meet the GOP senator quietly pushing an ObamaCare fix

Meet the GOP senator quietly pushing an ObamaCare fix
© Greg Nash

When Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderOvernight Health Care — Presented by The Partnership for Safe Medicines — GOP lawmaker pushes back on Trump drug pricing plan | Pfizer to raise prices on 41 drugs next year | Grassley opts for Finance gavel GOP lawmaker pushes back on Trump drug pricing proposal Congress needs to wake up to nuclear security threat MORE (R-Tenn.) waded into a crowded hallway of reporters outside a closed-door GOP meeting last month and announced a bipartisan ObamaCare deal, Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsSouth Dakota New Members 2019 On The Money: Deficit hits six-year high of 9 billion | Yellen says Trump attacks threaten Fed | Affordable housing set for spotlight in 2020 race Lawmakers, Wall Street shrug off Trump's escalating Fed attacks MORE (R-S.D.) was right at his side.

Rounds, a former insurance agent, had been quietly working with Alexander to forge a deal with Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care — Presented by The Partnership for Safe Medicines — FDA restricts sales of flavored e-cigs | Proposes ban on menthol in tobacco | Left wants vote on single-payer bill in new Congress | More than 12k lost Medicaid in Arkansas Schumer reelected as Senate Democratic Leader Senate GOP readies for leadership reshuffle MORE (Wash.) and other Democrats aimed at stabilizing ObamaCare markets.

Now he’s trying to sell the deal to skeptical colleagues who don’t want to be seen as propping up a law they revile.

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“We just kept track on cards who we'd talked to and who we hadn't talked to and whether they were interested in more information or they wanted copies of the bill as we proceeded to develop it,” Rounds told The Hill in an interview in his office, where a large Bison head and a whiteboard with the latest South Dakota grain prices greet visitors.

Rounds has taken the lead with Alexander in corralling Republicans, with Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingDems slam Trump’s energy regulator nominee GOP nerves on edge after Sinema takes lead over McSally Collusion judgment looms for key Senate panel MORE (I-Maine) working with Murray on the Democratic side.

Of the two, Rounds doubtlessly has the tougher job. All Senate Democrats are expected to support the bill.

Shortly after the agreement was announced last month, President Trump in a tweet said he opposed “bailing out” insurance companies.

While Trump at other times has seemed to praise the effort, Rounds said the initial criticism stalled his effort to recruit Republicans.

Twelve Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors, but Rounds said he and Alexander have paused their effort for now.

“Once the president announced that he wasn't ready to move forward much farther at this point with it then we stopped and we didn't start asking for more Republicans to join on until we resolve any issues the White House might have,” Rounds said.

“There is huge interest on the part of the Republican group to support this, but we have to wait until the president actually gives his approval because nobody's going to put their name on something if they don't think there's a chance of getting it through.”

Rounds continues to talk to other Republican senators about the bill, and talks with Alexander about the effort almost every day.

“Senator Rounds has been critical to it,” Alexander told The Hill. “And the reason he's been so helpful is because first, he was a governor and knows how to get a result. Second, he knows a lot about health insurance and cares about it.”

Rounds started selling insurance policies as an insurance agent in 1979.

Almost 25 years later, while serving as South Dakota’s governor, he oversaw state-level health insurance reforms in 2003 that included setting up a high-risk pool to insure especially sick people.

The background helped Rounds feel comfortable joining the discussion on the bill, which was led by Alexander and Murray, the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Health Committee.

Rounds, who is not a member of the committee, has also sought to tamp down turf battles with the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over many aspects of the legislation.

“A lot of this has to do with the Finance Committee and that creates some challenges for turf, and our thought was if that becomes an issue then perhaps Angus and I could take a more active role,” Rounds said.

Indeed, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchGinsburg attends Medal of Freedom ceremony amid recovery from fall Utah New Members 2019 Congress braces for high-drama lame duck MORE (R-Utah) has released a rival bill, which includes more conservative elements such as temporarily lifting ObamaCare’s individual mandate.

The Alexander-Murray bill funds for two years key ObamaCare payments that reimburse insurers for discounts to low-income people, in exchange for added flexibility for states to apply for waivers to change ObamaCare rules.

Trump, though, has argued that the payments, known as cost-sharing reductions, are a "bailout" to insurers.

Asked if other GOP senators brought up the same concerns, Rounds said, “Not until the president suggested it.”

“But once the president suggested that, that brought up some questions then and that's fine,” Rounds added. He said he is happy to have the White House make changes to address its concerns.

The measure is at a standstill. Democrats have declined to negotiate with the White House, saying they already reached a deal and GOP leaders should bring it up as it is.

The best chance for the bill could be as part of a larger government funding deal in December. Rounds said that “most certainly it could be” part of the deal, but that it is leadership’s decision to make.

Rounds stresses that ObamaCare still needs to be replaced, but pitches a two-step process, stabilizing the markets in the short term while a broader ObamaCare repeal and replacement bill is implemented.

Rounds says that he has spoken with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Senate banking panel showcases 2020 Dems | Koch groups urge Congress not to renew tax breaks | Dow down nearly 400 | Cuomo defends Amazon HQ2 deal GOP senator accuses fellow Republican of spreading ‘fake news’ about criminal justice reform bill The Hill's 12:30 Report - New White House threat to Acosta's press pass | Trump defends criticism of McRaven | Hamilton biographer to headline WHCA dinner MORE (R-Ky.) about the Alexander-Murray bill.

“I think he's recognizing clearly that the need is there, recognizing that it takes two steps to get done, the repeal and replace,” Rounds said of McConnell.

Asked if it is accurate that McConnell recognizes the need for the Alexander-Murray bill, a McConnell spokesman referred to an interview the leader gave last month with CNN, where he said he would bring up the bill for a vote if Trump supported it.

“I don't think he'll bring this one up until he knows that it's ripe, that the president is ready to go so that if we pass it out of the Senate in one form, that it's going to be approved by the president and by the House,” Rounds said of McConnell. “Otherwise there's no reason for him to waste Senate time on the floor."

Alexander likewise said Republicans are waiting on a move from Trump.

“We've made our recommendation with an unusually large number of co-sponsors and we're waiting for President Trump to decide what he wants to do,” Alexander said. 

--This report was updated at 1:22 p.m.