BY JOE WILLIAMS AND ERIN MERSHON
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent a warning to staffers last week amid growing frustration at the amount of information leaking from private Republican discussions on repealing the 2010 health care law.
At a meeting of his health care working group last Tuesday, the Kentucky Republican excused all nonleadership staffers after expressing annoyance over the number of leaks about the private discussions, GOP senators and aides said.
He was particularly frustrated with a report that cited a verbatim conversation that took place during a prior meeting, according to one lawmaker who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Staff has since been allowed back into the meetings, the lawmaker said, explaining that the initial dismissal was viewed as a warning. A McConnell spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The heightened sensitivity comes as the GOP is grappling with the difficult task ahead: educating all 52 Republican senators on intricate health care policy and securing the necessary votes to pass a complex piece of legislation.
Members of the McConnell-led working group charged with writing the repeal bill have been meeting twice a week in a room just off the Senate floor, airing ideas and sharing their positions on issues such as how and when to wind down the health care law’s Medicaid expansion or how to make the replacement plan’s tax credits more generous. The House passed its own legislation to repeal and replace the law earlier this month.
Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi, a member of the group, said the number of leaks “seems normal.” He also pushed back against criticism of the Republicans’ decision to craft the bill behind closed doors.
“If every idea was voiced out there, then there would be opposition to every idea before it gets finalized,” the Wyoming Republican said.
While the group’s initial 13 members were all men, their meetings have since been opened up to any GOP senator interested in attending. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said the change was made last week.
Despite that, Republican leadership has faced criticism for the manner in which the legislation is being crafted. Several members say the bill is not expected to go through the formal committee process. GOP leaders defend their methods and say all Republican senators will have the opportunity to contribute to the measure, but some members are warning that the conference as a whole will need ample time to review any final product.
“Look at the House, they didn’t have a [CBO] score and they voted on something and I think that if the score comes back poor, there’ll be a lot of criticisms of those House members,” said Cassidy, who will be attending his first working group meeting this week. “Senators will be cognizant of that.”
Outside of the working group, Republicans also regularly discuss aspects of the repeal legislation at thrice-weekly luncheons. Leadership has touted those lunch meetings as a key part of the overall discussions on the pending repeal legislation within the conference and has previously used them as justification for the private working group.
But two GOP lawmakers, speaking on background, said keeping members updated on the working group’s conversations during the lunches was proving too difficult. During working group sessions, one of the lawmakers said, Republicans can listen to experts explain in-depth health care policy changes under consideration, a more difficult task as senators come in and out of lunch.
Republicans have avoided placing any hard deadlines on the effort, but until the GOP finishes its work on health care, the rest of their ambitious legislative agenda is on hold. McConnell, for his part, has tried to shift the attention to Democrats who have so far refused to work with Republicans on any legislation that would repeal major portions of the law.
“Senate Democrats are essentially telling the American people that they are OK with the status quo — that Obamacare’s collapsing markets, double-digit premium increases, and counties with only one insurer represent the new normal for health care in our country,” he said on the Senate floor last week. “I hope our friends on the other side of the aisle will agree to join us in bringing some relief to the families who need it.”