Policy

Democrats Wary of GOP Health Care Hedging

Minority party not inclined to let up on criticism

From left, Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, Chris Van Hollenof Maryland and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts kept up their attack on the GOP health care plan Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Republicans are increasingly cautious about handicapping their quest to repeal the 2010 health care law, but their Democratic colleagues have no intention of letting up on criticism of the GOP’s goal of gutting former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement.

Democrats have been holding near-daily press conferences outlining concerns they have with the legislation that narrowly passed the House last month.

Partisan bickering over the law dates back to before it was even passed more than seven years ago. But as the insurance markets created by the law continue to show signs of turmoil and as deadlines near for insurance companies to file rates for fiscal 2018, any hope for a bipartisan fix has largely faded.

For their part, Senate Democrats want to avoid a repeat of what happened in the House, where their counterparts prematurely celebrated an initial defeat of the Republican bill, only to see it pass in the subsequent weeks.

On the attack

That’s why members like Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, continue to make attacking the legislation a main priority.

“Make no mistake, Senate Republican leaders are working as hard as they can to get to 50 votes and jam their version of Trumpcare through the Senate — and the minute they do, this bill is going to move fast,” Murray said. “That’s why we’re going to keep the pressure on and do everything we can to bring their closed-door, all-male negotiations out into the open so families know just how bad this legislation would be for their health and financial security.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer reiterated his party’s stance on Tuesday that any bipartisan work on legislation to stabilize the insurance markets would only occur if Republicans drop their desire to repeal the law.

“More and more Republicans are starting to realize that health care reform through reconciliation leads straight into a box canyon,” the New York Democrat said during a press conference following the weekly Senate policy lunches Tuesday. 

While the GOP is working behind the scenes to find the votes necessary to advance their own bill to overhaul the U.S. health care system, achieving consensus on several complex policy matters has proved very difficult.

That tension has played out in the media over the past several days. Republican senators have begun openly opining that legislation to fulfill the GOP’s seven-year campaign promise of repealing the health care law may not happen this year.

Following a meeting of the Republican health care working group on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seemed more optimistic than some of his colleagues

“We’re getting close to having a proposal to whip and take to the floor,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters.

GOP senators during the working group meeting discussed a number of policy options under consideration. Several members leaving the meeting said the next step would be for the Congressional Budget Office to analyze the proposals, in the hope that the chamber could vote on a final bill as early as July.  

Many Democrats know from experience the difficulty the GOP is facing in crafting a health care overhaul that can appease all political factions of the party.

New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan speaks during the Senate Democrats’ rally against Medicaid cuts in front of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan speaks during the Senate Democrats’ rally against Medicaid cuts in front of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“I have said from the beginning, it is hard to see Ted Cruz and Susan Collins getting to the same place on this issue,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, referring to his Republican colleagues from Texas and Maine, respectively. “What they’re pursuing is a loser strategy because they don’t want to vote for the House bill … and they’re unwilling to give up the basic architecture of the House bill.”

Diversion tool

The constant criticism from Democrats, Republicans say, is just an attempt to distract from the ongoing issues with the insurance markets created by the 2010 health care law.

“It has become painfully clear that Obamacare is failing to live up to its promises and is collapsing in front of our eyes,” McConnell said Tuesday during his opening remarks. “It’s time for our friends on the other side of the aisle to get serious about moving beyond the problems of Obamacare.”

But as Democrats and Republicans retreat further into their respective corners, the serious issues with the individual markets are met with continued partisan blame.

On Tuesday, Anthem Inc., a major health insurer, announced it would not offer plans in the Ohio individual exchange in 2018, leaving up to 20 counties without any insurer participation in the marketplace next year.

Among the reasons Anthem cited for withdrawing from Ohio was the uncertainty over federal payments that help decrease health care costs for low-income individuals, commonly known as cost-sharing subsidies. The Trump administration has threatened to stop those payments, a move that could spur more insurer departures ahead of next year’s open enrollment period.

Democrats immediately pounced on the announcement.

“The dangerous game President Trump and Washington politicians are playing just caused 70,000 paying customers in Ohio to lose their insurance and it will continue raising prices for everyone else. It’s got to stop,” Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown said. “Instead of using working families as bargaining chips and driving up prices across the market, we need to work together to lower costs and make health care work better for everyone.”

Democratic political operatives say the public’s disapproval of both the GOP’s attempts to repeal and replace the law and the actions the White House has taken will culminate in next year’s midterm elections.

But Republicans haven’t blinked an eye and continue to attribute any issues with the law to the Democrats’ refusal to work across the aisle on solutions to fix it — despite the GOP's insistence on using the budget reconciliation process, which only requires majority support for passage in the Senate, to repeal large chunks of the law. 

“Democrats are trying to blame the failures of Obamacare on anything but the broken health care law itself. They can try to shift the blame, but the American people won’t fall for it,” McConnell said.

But even as GOP members attempted to portray Anthem’s departure as yet another example of the failure of the health care law, the difficulty Republicans face in overhauling it on a strictly partisan basis was still on full display.

“The Affordable Care Act has failed to meet the promises that were made to Ohio families. We can and must do better than ObamaCare, but we should do it in a way that protects the most vulnerable in our society. I’m going to do everything I can to protect Ohio’s interests and ensure that our health care system works better for all Ohioans,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in a statement.

Niels Lesniewski and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report. 

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