Policy

McConnell: ‘We’re Not Slowing Down’ on Obamacare Repeal

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., heads to the Senate floor as he leaves the Senate Republicans' policy lunch on Tuesday, March 21, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

BY ERIN MERSHON and JOE WILLIAMS, CQ Roll Call

This story originally appeared on CQ.com.

The Senate is moving forward with an aggressive timeline to pass legislation repealing the 2010 health care law next week, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky insisted Tuesday, despite concerns within his party over the measure. 

His chamber would take up the legislation if the House advances it Thursday, McConnell said. Senate Republicans would aim to pass an amended version, teeing up a House vote on a final package during the first week of April.

“We’re not slowing down,” McConnell said at his weekly news conference.

“These are the various episodes you go through in trying to make a law and get a signature,” he added when asked whether reservations from Republican senators will lead him to put the brakes on proceedings on the partial repeal and replacement of the health care law.

Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said senators would have the opportunity to address any concerns during the floor debate.

“There are going to be lots of amendments up for votes on the floor, and once all of those amendments are made, people ... will be able to easily read and make an assessment and decide how they want to vote on it,” he said.

That ambitious time frame, however, is at odds with the challenges the legislation faces in both the House and the Senate. Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus maintain that they have more than enough “no” votes in their ranks to sink the bill, despite an in-person pitch for support from President Donald Trump on Tuesday morning. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., can spare just 21 votes and still pass the measure. 

Freshman Freedom Caucus Member Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, said he didn’t believe anyone who was planning to vote “no” Monday night was swayed by Trump’s Tuesday visit to the Capitol.

A sprinkling of moderates also are holdouts, even as some changes related to the generosity of the law’s tax credits, included in a Monday manager’s amendment, brought several lawmakers on board with the legislation.

“I didn’t say I’m not a no, I didn’t say I’m not a yes,” said Rep. Dan Donovan, R-N.Y, who explained he has several concerns with the legislation, including the addition of an amendment that specifically targets his state’s Medicaid financing structure. Donovan said he planned to meet with Trump later Tuesday to discuss the health care bill, along with several other more moderates.

Senate dynamics

McConnell’s goals on timing may be tough in the Senate, where a smaller majority will force the leader to keep all but two of his conference members on board. Already, a trio of Senate conservatives — Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Mike Lee, R-Utah; and Rand Paul, R-Ky. — is blasting the bill alongside the House Freedom Caucus.

Several moderate senators said Tuesday that while they were still reading the updated manager’s amendment from the House, they think there is more work to do before the Senate takes up the measure.

“The House has some work that they’ve got to do this week,” Lisa Murkowski said. “We’ll see how that all shakes out. I’m in the Senate, they’re in the House. We’re going to watch what the House does.”

Murkowski said she had spoken with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., about his efforts to make the tax credits more generous, an effort he said he feels confident he can accomplish within the boundaries of the new House measure. But she said his plan wouldn’t be enough for Alaska. The House bill is projected to raise premiums compared with Obamacare, especially for older voters in high-cost areas such as Alaska. 

“I think he recognizes, as we do, that the approach he has taken still doesn’t address much of the concern we have in Alaska, where you have such extraordinarily high costs,” she said.

Among the main change both Senate conservatives like Cruz and House Freedom Caucus members are demanding is the removal of the health care law’s mandate that requires insurers to cover a minimum set of so-called essential health benefits in their health plans.

Some House lawmakers — such as Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz. — say removing the health benefits requirements would be allowed under the fast-track Senate budget procedure known as reconciliation that Republicans are using to advance the bill. Others say that part of the process, known as the Byrd rule, prevents extraneous measures from being included in the bill and that changes to the essential benefits requirements would violate that rule. 

“I want to play the whole court here,” Franks said Tuesday. “I’m convinced that this is inside the boundaries of the Byrd rule because to suggest that the main drivers of the premium increases has nothing to do with the budget when we’re talking about billions of dollars is hysterically incorrect.”

But lawmakers in both chambers have cautioned that conservatives shouldn’t count on that change surviving the Senate if it were to be added to the bill. 

“The Byrd rule is the Byrd law, and we should not forget that,” Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., told CQ Roll Call.

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