Stranger Things

Senate Starts Flirting With Bipartisan Obamacare Compromise

Republicans are growing despondent and Democrats are willing to listen. But a compromise is still far from a done deal.

With Senate Republicans struggling to cobble together the votes needed to pass an Obamacare replacement measure, bipartisan talks on health care legislation have picked up pace on Capitol Hill.

Multiple lawmakers and high-level congressional aides have told The Daily Beast that moderates from each party have begun taking the temperature of the other side for a more modest approach to reforming the health care system. Aides and lawmakers insist that these talks are in their nascent stages. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), in an interview, described them as both informal and ephemeral.

But the fact that they are taking place at all suggests that lawmakers are growing frustrated by a lack of progress and more convinced that a Republican-only approach to dismantle the Affordable Care Act may never get the support needed to get through the Senate.

A top Democratic aide said discussions between the parties picked up noticeably before lawmakers left for July 4 recess. And at least two Democratic senators said that they’ve had conversations with their Republican counterparts about various ways to fix Obamacare—specifically, the private insurance markets.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) told The Daily Beast that he has spoken with “a third” of the 52 Republican senators and “a quarter” of GOP governors about bipartisan changes to Obamacare. When pressed for names, Carper said with a laugh: “They’re all the regular suspects, plus a lot more.”

“I think there’s a whole lot of interest in getting this right… and the way to do that is to actually slow down the process and go regular order,” Carper said, suggesting that lawmakers may hold hearings, vote on specific amendments, and attempt to craft a bill with 60-plus votes.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) told The Daily Beast on Monday that he recently struck up a “lengthy conversation” with Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), one of the moderate Republican holdouts who has raised serious concerns about the current bill. Among the topics they discussed, Nelson said, was creating a reinsurance fund in order stabilize the private markets more for participating insurers.

“You remember in Florida we created the hurricane catastrophe fund to keep rates low so an insurance company doesn’t have to raise rates to provide for the disaster, the catastrophe. Same thing in health insurance,” Nelson said.

A spokesman for Collins, who has been among the loudest GOP voices against the current bill, did not respond to a request for comment.

Aides privy to these conversations caution that they aren’t likely to lead to a breakthrough, at least not anytime soon.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced on Tuesday that he was delaying the start of the summer recess until the third week of August, giving Republicans more time to pass a bill before leaving town. So long as that remains the primary objective, Democrats say, then talks on a bipartisan alternative won’t be fruitful. Aides say that Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), for one, has declined overtures from multiple Republican senators until they concede a future with Obamacare being reformed but in place. And even moderates in the party have demanded the same.

“Until that [repeal] vote is taken it is kind of hard for us to proceed forward,” Manchin told The Daily Beast. “With repeal out there it is just hard.”

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Even if Republicans were to abandon repeal and replace in favor of bipartisan negotiations, they’d face significant roadblocks—and not just in the form of disgust from their base over a perceived capitulation. Areas of commonality on health care policy between the parties are few and far between. The reinsurance idea that Nelson says he discussed with Collins was in the original Affordable Care Act, but it was dramatically curtailed after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), demonized it as a bailout for insurers.

“You’re talking about an insurance company bailout? That’s what they’re talking about. With no reform,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) told reporters Tuesday, shrugging off the suggestion that Democrats and Republicans could come together to fix the insurance exchanges under Obamacare.

Despite leadership’s attempt to corral Republican votes for repeal and replace, it’s increasingly clear that they are having trouble with the sell. Some of the chamber’s more conservative members have suggested repealing Obamacare now and coming to some sort of agreement on replacement legislation later—an approach that the White House has said it would support, but one that would alienate moderate members.

In a reflection of just how complicated the legislative process has become, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on Tuesday announced that he too had begun talking with Democrats about coming to an agreement on a reform package. The South Carolina Republican is known for trying to strike deals with the other side of the aisle. But just weeks ago he had advocated letting Obamacare fall apart administratively so as to compel Democrats to come to the negotiating table. The senator declined to explain why he had a change of heart and what type of legislative solution he now would support, but an aide said details would be revealed in “a day or two.”