Politics

Activists Applaud Senate Democrats’ Harder Line on GOP Health Care Bill

In the days before the bill's expected unveiling, Senate Democrats seem to be listening

Senate Democrats rally against Medicaid cuts in front of the Capitol two weeks ago. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As Senate Republicans prepare to release a draft of their health care bill and attempt to pass it before the July 4 recess, activists are applauding Senate Democrats for pulling out all the stops to derail it.

At a Wednesday rally against the bill hosted by Senate Democrats, activist groups and unions including Ultraviolet, Moms Rising, MoveOn, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Teachers, Sen. Debbie Stabenow said, “We have a very simple message: ‘No hearing, no vote.’”

That’s a reference to a bill introduced by Democrats that would bar the health bill from being considered unless it receives at least one vote in committee and at least one hearing.

Activists say that's a start.

“We understand you're not in power, don’t set the agenda, and can’t control the rules,” Angel Padilla, policy director for Indivisible, said, addressing Senate Democrats, “but there are things you can do in the Senate to slow the process down, to make it clear to constituents and Republicans how important this moment is.”

That could include withholding consent, a so-called “nuclear option” that would bring the Senate to a halt. 

Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, took steps in that direction Monday, saying, “Republicans shouldn’t expect business as usual in the Senate” as long as they keep their health care bill secret.

Last week, Ben Wikler, Washington director for the advocacy group MoveOn wasn't sure whether the Democrats would be able to turn attention to the Senate bill in time.

“They were scrambling to put together a strategy in real time,” he said, and much of the public’s focus was still on the hearings related to the Trump campaign-Russia investigation.

But Senate Democrats are now homing in on health care.

“Credit to Schumer and the Democrats for stepping up here,” Padilla said. “We’re glad to see them withholding consent, and not agreeing to committee hearings in the afternoon. These things matter.”

But the extent to which Democrats will be willing to slow down Senate business is still in question.

Despite his praise for Democrats’ action so far, Padilla said they could do more.

“Ideally,” he said, “I’d love to see Senator Schumer and the other Democrats have a sit-in on the Senate floor.”

Wikler said that Democrats have only a few legislative tools at their disposal, “and they should use all of them.” That means refusing to let Senate business go forward as usual “until a bill is released for public consideration.”

Stabenow pledged at Wednesday’s rally to “use every tool available. But in the end our goal is to get three Republican senators to stand up and do the right thing.”

That deadline is likely to arrive soon, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday that a “discussion draft” of the bill should by available by Thursday.

Opponents of the bill that passed the House in May have even more reason to worry about the Senate version currently in the works. Senate Republicans, having learned from House Republicans’ difficulty defending support of the bill, have been keeping their bill’s contents a secret for as long as possible.

“We aren’t stupid,” a Republican aide told Axios, explaining the secrecy.

Padilla said the investigation into Trump’s Russia connections put Democrats in a difficult place.

“It’s tough,” he said, because potential Russian interference “undermines our system of government and our democracy, and it’s something we have to address.”

But while the Russia investigation will be going on for a long time, “it’s not what’s urgent right now. The only thing that matters right now is stopping” the Republican health bill, he said, since it's so time-sensitive.

That's why Indivisible is "asking that they withhold consent and filibuster everything they can."

The first attempt in the House at passing the bill fell apart after three weeks of public scrutiny. Republicans successfully moved their second bill quickly, managing a vote before the Congressional Budget Office could score the bill, expecting (and later getting) a poor score.

“McConnell clearly learned a lesson from what happened in the House," Wikler said. "The only way to pass this bill is through absolute secrecy."

Typically, the Senate is able to proceed in a timely fashion with the unanimous consent of all senators. But each senator has the ability to object to a consent agreement, which would effectively shut the Senate down. This could potentially delay a vote on a health bill, and even disrupt the Republican plan to vote on it before the July 4 recess.

The activists say delaying could be a necessary strategy to stop the bill. They argue that the Republican strategy of keeping the bill's contents and schedule under wraps has been effective at avoiding public pressure against the bill.

And even if withholding consent isn't enough to stop the Senate from passing a health care bill, activists say, the stakes are so high that Democrats need to be seen as using every option at their disposal to stop it. 

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