Senate GOP Breaks Health-Care Promise to Keep Government Open

Mitch McConnell bought Susan Collins’ vote on tax cuts by promising a vote on an Obamacare fix before year’s end. Facing a government shutdown, they caved to House conservatives.

Aaron Bernstein/Reuters

The writing was on the wall for weeks, but Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) on Wednesday backed off of her push for a bipartisan Obamacare stabilization package that was threatening a government shutdown.

The legislation, crafted by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA), has broad bipartisan support in the Senate, but House Republicans have said the measure is dead on arrival there. Keeping the government open is a two-way street—and, for that reason, Collins announced that she was asking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to punt on Alexander-Murray until next year.

“Rather than considering a broad year-end funding agreement as we expected, it has become clear that Congress will only be able to pass another short-term extension to prevent a government shutdown and to continue a few essential programs,” Collins and Alexander said in a joint statement.

Collins secured a commitment from McConnell that the Senate would vote on the Alexander-Murray bill before year’s end, either as a standalone or attached to the government funding bill that must clear both the House and Senate before Friday at 11:59 p.m. in order to avoid a shutdown.

McConnell guaranteed Collins a vote on Alexander-Murray in exchange for her “yes” vote on the sweeping tax overhaul package that the House and Senate approved this week. Collins, a centrist Republican, believed that the Alexander-Murray bill, which restores Obamacare subsidies that Trump had cut off earlier this year, was necessary in order to mitigate the impacts of a provision in the tax bill which essentially repeals the Obamacare individual mandate.

But Alexander-Murray must clear a key hurdle before it could ever become law: the House. Republicans, particularly the more conservative members, have decried the legislation as a “bailout” for insurance companies. To Collins’ dismay, the individual mandate is being scrapped without any sort of contingency plan to stabilize the health insurance markets in the interim.

At the same time, they’ve taken issue with the Senate’s—particularly McConnell’s—strategy of buying out certain lawmakers in order to ensure passage of key legislation. Some of McConnell’s loudest critics on Wednesday took a victory lap.

“We have said from the beginning that we didn’t see how this could have any success. We’re glad to see that come to fruition today,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, told The Daily Beast in an interview. “I think it shows the pitfalls of some of the strategy coming out of the Senate. I think the strategy of the House Republicans has been spot-on.”

Even Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a top dealmaker in the House who has been among the loudest opponents of shutting down the government over disagreements with the Senate, batted down the suggestion that Alexander-Murray could be part of a year-end deal. That would be akin to blackmail, according to Cole.

“It doesn’t fit in at all. It causes a lot of problems if you try to put it on anything. There’s a lot of pushback in our conference against doing that,” Cole told reporters. “Nobody feels like being blackmailed over it and nobody thinks the concessions with it—the whole package—is worth passing. There would have to be a lot more.”

On Tuesday, some House Republicans were floating the possibility of adding abortion restrictions along with the Alexander-Murray bill, but that would kill any chance to win over the Democratic votes that are necessary to pass a final product.

Republican and Democratic congressional aides told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that the most likely path for avoiding a government shutdown later this week was for both the House and Senate to pass a clean continuing resolution (CR), which maintains current spending levels, through mid-January. The package would also include provisions that would allow for spending hikes for the military and defense.

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Congressional leaders had hoped to agree on a bargain before Friday that would include a reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and protections for children of undocumented immigrants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, among other priorities. But with Republicans spending most of their time pushing through a tax overhaul bill, those will all have to wait until January.

Collins wasn’t the only senator to win concessions in return for her vote on the tax bill. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) announced on Wednesday that McConnell had guaranteed him a vote on DACA protections in January. Republican leaders had previously said DACA would not be dealt with before the end of 2017—to the ire of some Senate Democrats, who are pledging to vote against any spending bill this week that does not address the so-called DREAMers. With only a handful of Democrats willing to threaten a government shutdown over the issue, it became increasingly unlikely this week that they would be able to force Republicans’ hands.

The immigration fight, which has always been a thorny issue in Congress, will require broad agreement between the House and Senate on a compromise involving additional border security measures sought by Republicans. On Wednesday, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), who has joined some Senate Democrats in vowing to vote against any spending bill that doesn’t address DACA, told The Daily Beast that he was not consulted on McConnell’s offer to Flake. Curbelo is holding out hope that Congress will act before week’s end.

“I just told [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi (D-CA) that those of us who believe in this cause need to stand strong because we’re still in the game,” Curbelo said. “It’s very late, but this week is unpredictable and anything can happen. The later it gets on this issue, the more difficult it will be to put together a workable compromise for everyone.”

Congress has until March to codify the protections for DREAMers that the Trump administration rescinded in September, and lawmakers advocating for the DREAM Act have argued that the issue shouldn’t wait until next year because some protectees are already losing their status.

“I think we have the votes to force concrete action this week, meaning that this be addressed legislatively this week,” Curbelo said. “We have the votes—the question is: do we have the resolve? I know I do. I’m not walking from this.”