UPDATE, 7/28/17, 2:01 a.m.: The Senate defeated the “skinny” Obamacare repeal 51-49, with Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and John McCain voting no.
Senate Republicans are openly rooting for their latest version of health care reform to ultimately fail. But they may end up passing it anyway.
Such is the confusing state of what has been a disorderly process to repeal and replace Obamacare.
On Thursday afternoon, GOP leaders were putting together a proposal dubbed “skinny repeal” that, according to Republican aides, would gut much of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate while scrapping the employer mandate for a minimum of six years. The legislation would also provide more flexibility to states to set insurance regulations. The bill defunds Planned Parenthood for one year, and scraps the tax on medical device manufacturers for three years. The legislative text was released at 10:00 p.m. on Thursday night.
But even before the details were unveiled, four high-profile Republican senators cast doubt on whether they’d support the measure, disappointed by both the process and the product. And in place of the legislation, they and others offered a novel way to move the bill forward: a possible guarantee from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) that the legislation would be sent to a conference committee, where it would subsequently be changed.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said it wasn’t a solution itself but, but rather “a solution to how we get to a place to where we can write a solution.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) told reporters: “The whole purpose here was to find the things that met the criteria of the bill that 50 or more of us would be for. And I don’t know why we couldn’t accomplish that.”
Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) echoed Blunt, telling The Daily Beast that Republican leaders tried to “get to the things that we know enough people would support, and then go to conference.”
By itself, the skinny repeal bill is deeply unpopular, and Republican senators sought to do everything in their power to prevent it from becoming the final product that’s sent to the president’s desk. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) said it would be “very sad, very sad” if the skinny repeal is the best congressional Republicans could do to dismantle Obamacare. But he indicated he would vote for it to affirm that it’s “better than the status quo, which is awful.”
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who traveled back to Washington after a brain cancer diagnosis to vote in favor of opening up debate on legislation, told reporters he does not support the scaled-back repeal. And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he wanted a guarantee that the scaled-back repeal bill ultimately wouldn’t be passed by the House. “I want to make sure that the skinny bill doesn’t become the final product,” Graham said, calling it a “fraud” and a “disaster.”
But by Thursday afternoon Graham, Johnson and McCain (as well as Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana) were holding a press conference saying they’d support the measure, provided there was a guarantee from the House—which they don’t yet have—that a conference would take place and the final bill wouldn’t be of the “skinny” variety.
It was unclear how one chamber could bind another to a guarantee, and when asked, Graham said bluntly: “It’s like pornography you’ll know it when you see it.”
Later Thursday, Ryan issued a statement saying the House is “willing” to set up a conference committee. But he said the Senate should do its job and come up with an “actual plan” that can get 51 votes.
“The House remains committed to finding a solution and working with our Senate colleagues, but the burden remains on the Senate to demonstrate that it is capable of passing something that keeps our promise, as the House has already done,” Ryan said. “Until the Senate can do that, we will never be able to develop a conference report that becomes law.”
The degree to which a guarantee of a bill going to conference can be honored will ultimately determine the fate of skinny repeal, which is likely to come to a Senate vote in the wee hours of Friday morning. (The legislation was still being written as of lunchtime on Thursday, senators said.)
Republican leaders need 50 supportive members, and GOP sources told The Daily Beast that they expect the legislation to ultimately pass and be sent to a conference committee with the House. But the fear that the House may then just pass the bill as is and call it a day left certain members spooked, while others seemed opposed on straight policy grounds.
Complicating matters further was House leadership’s decision on Thursday to enact “martial law,” which would allow the chamber to take up and pass the Senate bill, should it pass, in a single day. The House Freedom Caucus—its rebellious conservative faction—has said it won’t accept a skinny repeal, which could ultimately doom its chances if a conference committee isn’t successful. And Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), called the plan “ugly to the bone.”
But other House members said they’d be comfortable with taking the bill and calling it a day.
On senior Senate Republican aide told The Daily Beast that the expectation was that the two chambers would go to conference—but that, once there, they would be unable to either reconcile their differences or put together a more comprehensive repeal-and-replace package that could satisfy their members. At that point, the House would have to either go skinny or go home.