Senate Democrats Can’t Slow GOP Health Care Bill Once It’s Written

But minority party will try to slow down proceedings until then

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and his Democratic colleagues want to draw attention to the closed-door nature of the GOP health care talks. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and his Democratic colleagues want to draw attention to the closed-door nature of the GOP health care talks. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted June 20, 2017 at 5:01am

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer had a warning for his Republican colleagues on Monday.

“If Republicans won’t relent and debate their health care bill in the open for the American people to see, then they shouldn’t expect business as usual in the Senate,” the New York Democrat said.

But once Republicans finalize amendment language for the measure that houses the GOP plan to revamp the nation’s health insurance system, there will not be much debate at all.

Schumer and his Democratic colleagues have begun to throw the kitchen sink to drive attention to the secretive nature of the GOP negotiations on the health care bill.

That included a rather tongue-in-cheek letter to the Republican chairmen of the Budget, Finance, and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees listing 31 hearing rooms and other meeting spaces in the Senate office buildings and the Capitol Visitor Center where Republicans could theoretically convene hearings on the health policy proposals and discuss them in a public forum.

Drawing a contrast

While the final language of the 2009 and 2010 effort to pass President Barack Obama’s signature health care law was being changed until the end to secure votes, it was preceded by more than a year of public hearings and forums. Democrats are seeking to contrast that with how Republicans are conducting the process in the run-up to floor debate this year.

“During this process, the Senate Finance Committee held more than 50 hearings, meetings and roundtables on health reform, and spent eight days marking up the legislation — the longest markup in 22 years. The Senate HELP Committee held more than 47 hearings, meetings and roundtables and considered nearly 300 amendments during a 13-day markup,” the Democrats wrote.

This all comes as the push continues to get health care reconciliation bill released and to the floor before the July 4 recess, with the Congressional Budget Office said to be reviewing draft legislation.

If a bill is produced that can secure the support of at least 50 Republican senators in the face of unified Democratic opposition and can comply with the limitations of budget reconciliation rules, then the minority Democrats will be powerless to stop it.

And there are real limitations on how much delaying will even be in order at that point. The Congressional Budget Act limits debate to 20 hours on a reconciliation measure. Those wheels could start turning at the beginning of next week.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stressed the involvement of all 52 Senate Republicans in the discussions about the replacement for the 2010 health care law.

“We’ve had numerous, productive discussions on the way forward. We believe we can and must do better than Obamacare’s status quo,” the Kentucky Republican said on the floor Monday. “Senate Republicans will continue working because it’s clear that we cannot allow Americans’ health care to continue on its current downward trajectory under Obamacare, taking so many families with it. The Obamacare status quo is simply unsustainable. The American people deserve relief. And we’ll keep working to provide it.”

Senate Democrats kept speaking on the floor into the night Monday, starting with Schumer and Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly.

But the extent of their effort to stall Senate business will not become clear until it’s time to potentially thwart committees from meeting.

Democrats have begun to object to advancing routine business through unanimous consent.

“If Republicans are not going to allow debate on their bill on the floor or in committee, Democrats will make opportunities to debate,” Schumer said in a floor speech. “And these are merely the first steps we’re prepared to take in order to shine a light on the shameful Trumpcare bill and reveal to the public the GOP’s backroom deal-making.”

Some exceptions

A senior Senate Democratic aide said they might still allow honorary resolutions through during the blockade, such as one last week that recognized the efforts of Capitol Police and Alexandria, Virginia, police officers in responding to the shooting at the Republican team practice for the Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game.

And Schumer did not object to a request by McConnell to push back a previously scheduled floor vote on confirmation of Brock Long to be the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency until Tuesday morning.

Senators faced flight cancellations and other travel delays in getting back to the Capitol on Monday as a violent thunderstorm rolled through the region ahead of the planned votes.

The Senate’s rules limit many committee hearings to two hours at a time, and also prevent committees from meeting far into the afternoon. Enforcing this provision, which is routinely waived, is probably the most visible sign of grinding business to a halt.

A Foreign Relations Committee hearing on proposals to authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups might be the highlight of Tuesday morning’s hearing schedule.

The Judiciary Committee has an afternoon subcommittee session planned on lessons that can be learned from past instances where congressional and law enforcement investigations have run concurrently, with former Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin as the featured witness.

The Michigan Democrat was also the chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and he has dedicated a significant chunk of his post-Senate life to work on bolstering the oversight capability of Congress.

The Judiciary subcommittee chaired by South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham is certainly interested in the topic because of the simultaneous efforts by Congress and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to investigate the Russian effort to interfere in last year’s elections.

Those hearings in particular underscore the challenges for Democrats who want the focus on the secretive nature of the GOP health care talks without being accused of blocking probes related to Russia or any potential ties of President Donald Trump.

In the meantime, the Senate will bide its time working through a series of nominations, even without procedural acquiescence from the Democratic caucus.

McConnell moved to limit debate Monday afternoon on the renomination of Kristine L. Svinicki to a seat on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where she has been serving as chairwoman. That sets up a roll call vote to cut off debate once the Senate has worked through confirmation of Long, as well as a pair of Treasury Department nominees already in line.