‘Until somebody shows us a way to get that elusive 50th vote, I think it’s over,’ one top GOP senator says.
“Maybe lightning will strike and something will come together but I’m not holding my breath,” Sen. John Thune said. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Senate Republicans have no plans to revive their party-line attempts to repeal Obamacare this summer, despite President Donald Trump’s increasing frustration over the chamber’s failed attempts last week to gut the law.
“Until somebody shows us a way to get that elusive 50th vote, I think it’s over,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Republican. “Maybe lightning will strike and something will come together but I’m not holding my breath.”
Trump over the weekend taunted his own party’s slim majority, saying on Twitter they’d look like “fools” and “total quitters” if they abandon the health care push. But GOP senators appear unmoved.
For one, they’re down one vote in the short term, with Sen. John McCain being treated for cancer in Arizona.
But as the collapse of the repeal effort in the Senate last week showed, even with McCain the GOP majority is so narrow that it may never be possible to pass major, partisan health care reform through the chamber. That increasingly appears to be the case despite White House efforts to promote a bill by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that would send federal health care funding to the states in the form of block grants.
Privately, Republican aides said there is essentially no chance McConnell will take another shot at repealing Obamacare soon. On Monday, there was discussion among Senate staffers of a “hard pivot to tax reform,” one Senate aide said.
Publicly, senators were only slightly more charitable to the president’s demand that the GOP put everything on hold until it passes a health care law.
“Do I think we should stay on health care until we get it done? I think it’s time to move on to something else. Come back to health care when we’ve had more time to get beyond the moment we’re in and see if we can’t put some wins on the board,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of GOP leadership. “Tax reform, infrastructure are the kinds of things we ought to be looking at.”
Pressed to respond to Trump’s Twitter tirade against the Senate GOP, Blunt said: “What do you want me to say about that? Obviously we didn’t give up and we didn’t quit. We can come back to this at another time and I’m sure we will.”
The past few weeks has been exceedingly painful for Republican senators. After his cancer diagnosis, McCain flew back to provide a critical vote for opening debate on Obamacare repeal — only to crush the GOP’s hopes days later of passing even a stripped-down bill to undo the law’s individual mandate.
Trump scolded Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in a private phone call for her opposition to opening debate on repeal. And House members bashed the Senate as an ineffectual body that can’t summon the will to move forward.
A number of GOP senators were caught in a vice between their past promises to repeal Obamacare and vows to protect Medicaid recipients and other constituents from harm. The idea of taking another heart-stopping vote with little chance of success is not high on senators’ priority lists.
“I don’t think that in the next two weeks that’s what we ought to do. I think we’re going to have some bipartisan meetings and hearings,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who’s been attacked by liberals for supporting some of McConnell’s health care proposals. “I don’t think there’s the appetite to have a vote in the next two weeks.”
In floor remarks Monday, McConnell said nothing about Obamacare. After McCain killed the “skinny” repeal plan last week with his decisive “no” vote, McConnell declared that it’s “time to move on” from the GOP’s party-line attempts to attack the seven-year old law.
His office had no new comment on the repeal effort Monday.
Some rank-and-file Republicans want to try and keep up the fight even as more senior members echoed McConnell’s “move on” comments. Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota said the party must pursue “all avenues” to reform, including reconciliation.
“We have to continue working on it because come Jan. 1, we’re going to see a huge increase in premiums,” Rounds said.
In theory, McConnell could bring up the budget reconciliation bill to repeal Obamacare anytime, though without McCain the GOP lacks the votes to reopen debate on the matter. And everything the GOP tried last week failed to garner the required 50 votes: Repealing the law, replacing it and the “skinny” bill sold to Republicans as a starting point for negotiations with the House.
“We’re just thinking about everything right now … I don’t have any announcement for you,” Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of the Senate’s agenda. “I wouldn’t leap to any conclusions. Give us a chance to talk about and figure out what’s next. What we do know is next is nominations.”
Indeed, for the next two weeks the chamber is expected to focus on confirming Trump’s nominees, including a new circuit court judge from Alabama, a new National Labor Relations Board member and probably a vote on FBI director nominee Chris Wray. The Senate is currently expected to leave for recess at the end of next week.
In the meantime, there are major decisions pending about health care. Trump is threatening to cut off health insurance subsidies for low-income people, which could spur Congress to act — though Trump could veto any bill providing funding for that assistance. Republicans also have to decide whether to abandon the budget reconciliation vehicle they’d been using to try to repeal Obamacare — a tool that allows them to skirt Democratic filibusters.
The White House is pushing the bill from Graham and Cassidy, and some lawmakers are talking about a bipartisan bill to stabilize insurance markets. But those efforts are in their infancy: The Graham-Cassidy bill does not have a Congressional Budget Office score or the support of 50 senators. And bipartisan talks are just beginning in the wake of last week’s failure to repeal the law.
“It’s a constant battle. Health care is one of the most difficult things,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “It has to come back before the end of the year. We have to face it.”
Hatch paused when asked if he’s referring to another party-line repeal effort.
“Oh, I hope it’ll be bipartisan,” he said.