Senate Leaders Spar on Republican Efforts to Repeal Obamacare

Weekly clashes could become the norm as health care remains top focus

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer used his post-policy lunch media appearance on Tuesday to blast Republican efforts on health care. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer used his post-policy lunch media appearance on Tuesday to blast Republican efforts on health care. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 9, 2017 at 3:58pm

It’s only the first full work week since the Senate received the House-passed measure to reorder the nation’s health insurance system, and leaders in both parties are wasting no time hurling criticism at each other over how to approach the legislation.

Using the time reserved for leadership press conferences after Tuesday’s policy lunches, Republicans criticized Democrats for refusing to come to the table and negotiate a fix to a health care system they described as in chaos. Democrats accused the GOP of crafting a bill in secret, by an all-male working group, that would drastically reduce benefits for vulnerable people.

The goals of reducing health care costs and making insurance more affordable are consistent across both parties. But the methods under which Republicans and Democrats seek to achieve those objectives are starkly different, underscoring the difficult path forward for any bipartisan compromise. 

The back-and-forth criticism between the leaders of the two parties could become the norm. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday reiterated that a repeal of the health care law would be the top issue in the Senate for weeks.

“We’re able to meet all of us multiple times every week. And so each of these lunches that we have — Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — for the foreseeable future are going to be devoted almost entirely to the health care issue,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters.

The GOP is pursuing a health care overhaul through a budget maneuver known as reconciliation that requires only a simple majority in the Senate to pass. This has left Democrats removed from the legislative process. 

But all 48 members of the Senate’s Democratic conference sent a letter to McConnell and other Republican leaders on Tuesday asking the GOP to abandon the ongoing repeal efforts and work across the aisle on a compromise proposal.

“If repeal is abandoned, we stand ready to work with you to help all Americans get the affordable health care they need,” the lawmakers wrote.

McConnell said the request is an indicator that Democrats are “conceding that the status quo is not sustainable.”

Among the main criticisms from Democrats is the lack of female senator in a McConnell-led GOP working group tasked with writing the bill.

“Republicans should come out from behind their closed doors and work with Democrats, maybe even invite some female members to be part of the conversation, and put forward [a] bipartisan proposal to improve our health care system,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday.

Republican leaders have largely brushed aside that criticism, and McConnell said Tuesday all 52 members of the GOP conference would have a voice in the discussions.

“We just spent virtually the entire hour on the health care issue and we’re going to continue to discuss that,” he said. “The working group that counts is all 52 of us and we’re having extensive meetings … every day, nobody is being excluded based upon gender.”

Republican Sen. Susan Collins said she was “surprised” that the current Senate GOP working group on health care doesn’t include any women. But the Maine moderate added that other Senate GOP groups are now working on health care in parallel and may emerge as leaders in the effort to draft a bill.

“I’m not sure that this is going to end up being the core working group. There are many of us who are working on this issue,” Collins said. “We’re having regular presentations.”

Collins said she was also surprised that McConnell’s GOP working group doesn’t include South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who has significant experience in the insurance industry, or Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, a physician and founder of a community health clinic for the uninsured.

Still, Collins said female Republicans will help shape the chamber’s bill.

“The leader has every right to appoint whomever he wishes to the working group. That does not mean that the voices of Republican women will not be heard. Today, for example. I gave a presentation for nearly 15 minutes at our policy lunch about Maine’s high-risk pool and how the House provisions differ from that,” she said.

Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.