What’s Dead May, In Fact, Die

The Republican Party’s Zombie Obamacare Repeal Might Really, Actually Be Dead

GOP lawmakers seem to have no appetite for trying one more time to scrap the law before a critical, end-of-the-month deadline.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Since last spring, congressional Republicans’ prospects of repealing Obamacare have gone from remote, to miraculously successful, to one raised thumb away from triumph, to dormant to unexpectedly revived once more.

The final, true, actual end may have come on Monday, as top Senate Republicans threw cold water on the last serious iteration of an Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill.

That iteration, heralded by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA), would block-grant federal funds to individual states and allow state governments to use the money how they see fit.

A Graham spokesman told The Daily Beast that the text will be released “later this week.” But even before its formal introduction, the political headwinds against it picked up steam. And they came courtesy of congressional Republicans, who aren’t keen on taking yet another stab at repealing Obamacare after dramatic failures this past summer.

“No,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, told The Daily Beast when asked if he expects Graham-Cassidy to be put to the Senate floor. “I don’t know that there’s that much support behind it. But we’ll see. I mean, I’m not against them pushing their bill.”

Graham-Cassidy could satisfy more moderate holdouts including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a close Graham friend who told The Daily Beast on Monday that he is “in favor” of the bill but wants to speak more about it with his state’s GOP governor, Doug Ducey. But conservative lawmakers aren’t likely to vote for it, on grounds that it does not go far enough to fully repeal Obamacare.

“They’re going to keep all of the Obamacare taxes, most of the Obamacare regulations, and then give some sort of pretense to giving state control? They leave all the regulations in place, as far as I’m concerned. It sounds to me like a bad idea,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) told reporters, adding it would “probably” be worse than doing nothing. “I don’t think it’s going anywhere. I’ve heard of nobody talking about it. It’s not going anywhere.”

A senior Senate Republican aide told The Daily Beast that the Graham-Cassidy is “very much dead on arrival”—if it arrives at all. A senior Democratic aide echoed that assessment, saying it “seems unlikely Republicans want to revisit the repeal fight.” A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not respond to a request for comment.

Beyond Republican opposition and skepticism, Graham-Cassidy’s future is in doubt because it complicates ongoing bipartisan talks between the top Republican and top Democrat on the Senate health committee. Lawmakers there are attempting to cobble together an agreement on initiatives intended to stabilize the existing insurance markets under Obamacare and prevent premiums from skyrocketing in 2018.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the committee’s ranking member, told The Daily Beast that Graham-Cassidy would jeopardize the committee’s efforts. “That just takes us back to a debate the American public has spoken loudly about, and we’re not going there,” she said.

Her Republican counterpart, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), seemed to catch that drift. On Monday he brushed off Graham-Cassidy, suggesting it was more important that Congress deliver on longer-term market stabilization measures than completely overhaul the law.

“The fact is unless we act before the end of September, premiums are going to go up in most states, and if we act by the end of September, we can make sure that they don’t go up as much and that everybody can buy insurance in the individual market. So I feel a responsibility to act,” Alexander, the committee’s chairman, told reporters.

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Graham-Cassidy already faced numerous hurdles before Republican senators began to wax critically about its content and passage. The Senate’s budget reconciliation rules—which would allow a bill to pass with a 50-vote majority—are set to expire at the end of the month, meaning that the chamber would have to move fast in order to get it passed. Were the Senate to do that, the House would then have to consider the bill without the ability to amend it, since it likely could not be sent back to the Senate within the reconciliation window. It’s unclear if House members there would simply pass that final product.

They have not been pushed hard to consider doing so; at least not yet. The Trump administration has treaded lightly on health care in recent weeks. During the August recess, the White House reluctantly signed off on a short-term market stabilization measure when it authorized a continuation of cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments—subsidies as part of Obamacare that are meant to offset costs for insurers and poorer Americans.

White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News last week that President Trump would sign Graham-Cassidy if it came to his desk. But there is fear that a White House strategy of getting behind Graham-Cassidy in full force could give false hope for repeal-and-replace; and, in doing so, set up the president for another dramatic legislative failure.

Paul Teller, a member of the White House legislative affairs team who serves as the liaison for House Republicans, met with staffers from the conservative Republican Study Committee on Monday morning, a source who attended the meeting told The Daily Beast. Teller told the staffers that the White House is open to pushing for Graham-Cassidy’s passage, the source added. But Teller declined to reveal whether Graham-Cassidy would receive Trump’s full-throated endorsement.