By JOE WILLIAMS and BRIDGET BOWMAN, Roll Call
Sen. Dean Heller came out in opposition Friday to draft legislation released Thursday that would overhaul the U.S. health insurance system, teeing up a major battle for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“This bill that’s currently in front of the United States Senate is not the answer. It’s simply not the answer. In this form, I will not support it,” the Nevada Republican said at a press conference.
Heller said he would vote against a procedural motion on Tuesday to end debate on the legislation if the bill is not changed.
“Leadership knows well how I feel and what I need,” he said on Friday. “It’s going to be very difficult to get me to a ‘yes.’ They have a lot of work to do.”
The pro-Donald Trump group America First Policies is planning to target Heller with a seven-figure ad buy, a spokesperson for the group confirmed to Roll Call. The group was founded by former Trump campaign staffers.
"There is no excuse for any Republican or Democrat to oppose the Senate health care bill outright," the group’s president, Brian O. Walsh, said in a statement. "We at America First Policies will make certain that citizens know who stood in the way of repealing and replacing Obamacare, and we will ensure the people's voices are heard."
Heller is facing one of the most difficult re-election campaigns next year of any sitting GOP senator. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee launched a series of ads earlier this year targeting Heller on the Republican effort to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law. On top of that, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican who joined Heller at the press conference, has expressed concerns over the Medicaid cuts included in the Senate’s draft bill.
Nevada is one of thirty-one states plus the District of Columbia that expanded Medicaid under the 2010 law. That expansion allowed states to cover a larger portion of their population under the entitlement program with enhanced federal funding.
“These are folks that are worth fighting for. These are the people when I talk about the Nevada family who I’m talking about,” Sandoval said. “The current bill as written is something that needs to change.“
Heller joins a quartet of GOP lawmakers in voicing initial issues, though for different reasons, over the draft largely crafted behind closed doors under the guidance of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Republican aides and lobbyists expect more senators to also come out publicly with concerns over the proposal.
Several more moderate lawmakers, like Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have yet to publicly state their position on the draft.
An analysis on the proposal from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office is expected early next week, possibly Monday, and additional changes to address some of the initial concerns on the draft could come by Tuesday, according to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas.
But the loss of Heller is a blow to McConnell’s effort to corral 50 votes in favor of the bill, enough to pass it under the fast-track budget procedure known as reconciliation the GOP is using to advance the legislation in the event of a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence.
McConnell faces the difficult task of appeasing the demands of conservatives who want to gut more of the existing health care law in this legislation while keeping moderate members on board, many of whom have expressed concerns about any deep cuts to Medicaid.
President Donald Trump and McConnell have spoken about the health bill, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Friday. The two will continue to chat, he said, and Trump could have senators over to the White House and will be calling some on the phone.
Trump tweeted Thursday that he was “very supportive” of the draft legislation.
Difficult re-election looming
Heller was first elected to the Senate in 2012 by a 1 point margin after serving three terms in the House. The Nevada Republican once again faces a tough Senate race in 2018.
He is the most vulnerable Republican senator up for re-election as the only GOP senator running in a state that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won in November. Clinton carried the Silver State by 8 points. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates his re-election race Lean Republican.
Senate Democrats are largely on their heels in 2018, defending 25 Senate seats compared to Republicans’ eight. But they view Heller’s seat as a potential pickup opportunity, and landed a challenger with Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, who is reportedly announcing a campaign against Heller in the coming weeks.
Democrats have been aggressively targeting Heller as a key vote on the health care bill. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee launched a Google “full screen takeover” ad Monday targeting voters in Nevada, and directing them to a video titled, “What Will Heller’s Healthcare Vote Cost You?” The Google ads were part of an ongoing six-figure digital ad buy and targeted at voters in Arizona, Texas and Florida.
Nevada Democratic Rep. Dina Titus is also weighing a Senate run, and said she has a poll in the field this week to help inform her decision. She also noted Heller has been facing pressure in recent weeks to vote against the GOP’s health care plan.
“Nevadans are very energized. We’ve seen them doing all kinds of rallies and marches and turning out at his office, calling in, emailing. So I think he’s in a real box,” Titus said Thursday. “He’s got to keep his base satisfied, which is pretty conservative. And yet, a lot of people in Nevada are on Medicaid expansion and yet you’ve got a governor who supports [the expansion].”
“[Heller] has been very good in the past of walking both sides,” Titus said. “Now he’s got to make a choice.”
Despite his choice to oppose the GOP bill, Nevada Democrats have signaled they will continue to press Heller on the issue, citing his comments that he would support a gradual phase out of the Medicaid expansion. Minutes before Friday’s press conference, the Nevada Democratic Party sent out a press release highlighting Heller’s past statements and his previous votes to repeal Obamacare.
And shortly after Heller's announcement, DSCC spokesman David Bergstein noted Heller may still be swayed to support the plan, even though Heller said it will be difficult to persuade him to vote for the bill.
“Senator Heller is awfully good at taking marching orders from Washington, which is why he trotted out before the cameras to say he’s leaving the door open to supporting the Republican health care plan," Bergstein said in a statement. "Voters already know they can’t trust Senator Heller, and we’ll continue to make sure he’s held accountable for a plan that will force Nevadans to pay more for less care.”
Heller’s decision to vote against the GOP plan could anger conservative Republicans in the state. But Heller did get some fundraising help from conservative Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas this week. Hours after the Senate draft was released Thursday, Heller’s campaign sent out a fundraising email that looked like it was coming from Cruz with the subject line, “We need him…”
“Since arriving on Capitol Hill back in 2013, I’ve known Dean as a fighter as we work to reform our government and strengthen our great country,” Cruz said in the fundraising email.
John T. Bennett contributed to this report.