No thumbs down have flipped to thumbs up.
The reality is that no matter what the president says at the White House or how often he says it, nothing has changed at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. | Alex Brandon/AP Photo
President Donald Trump says the Senate has the votes to repeal Obamacare.
That’s news to the Senate.
“I think that’s aspirational,” said Majority Whip John Cornyn, who counts votes for the GOP.
“If there were 50 votes, we’d be voting,” added John Thune (R-S.D.), another member of Republican leadership.
Repeatedly claiming that Republicans have the votes to repeal major parts of Obamacare early next year, Trump is stoking expectations that the GOP can fulfill its seven-year pledge before the 2018 midterm elections — a promise that Republicans once again might not be able to keep.
The Senate, Trump says, will have the 50 votes needed to enact the bill known as Graham-Cassidy, the last of a series of repeal bids that went down in flames this summer and fall.
The reality is that no matter what the president says at the White House or how often he says it, nothing has changed at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Not a single “no” vote has flipped to a “yes.” When senators talk about repeal after months of failure, they are talking about hopes and dreams — not about 50 votes to pass it.
“I think eventually, I may be speaking aspirationally, eventually we’ll have 50 votes for Graham-Cassidy or something like that,” Thune said.
The cold hard reality has not stopped Trump — who has never served in a legislature and who confounded senators with his rapid-fire conflicting statements all week about whether he favored a bipartisan Obamacare stabilization effort — from insisting there are 50 votes for dismantling the 2010 health law.
“We are very close,” Trump said Tuesday. “As soon as we’re finished with taxes, we really feel we have the votes to get block grants into the states.”
Of course, when, whether and how Republicans get through tax reform is another story.
The Graham-Cassidy bill would have undone much of Obamacare and given states block grants to figure out health care for themselves — with much less money than they would have under the law today. It’s named for two of its key sponsors, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La).
The president has predicted that in early 2018, Republicans would approve a new budget with a special rule allowing them to pass Obamacare repeal with 50 votes in the Senate instead of the 60 typically needed for legislation. They had that 50-vote threshold through much this year, but they still couldn’t pass repeal. And that budget resolution expired at the end of the fiscal year.
Trump wants to try again.
“I think we have the votes or we’re certainly within one vote, and when you’re within one vote, you’re able to get a vote,” Trump said Thursday, although he acknowledged vote counts are “fragile.
“We’ve found that out. We’ve seen that. I’ve learned that,” he said. “I thought we had it the last time, and somebody came out of the blue and voted against it. So now we start the process all over again. But the block grant, the concept of blocking it out, block grants to the states, that’s what people want.”
The president acknowledged Friday that “people are criticizing me for saying” Republicans have the votes, but he reiterated the pledge again.
“I think we actually have the votes for that,” he said. “You know, we were basically one short.”
While many Republicans still favor repeal, some privately worry that renewing the contentious debate — especially with Trump raising expectations of success — will only lead to another high-profile failure. And failure would come even closer to the midterms, when Republicans need to deliver achievement to their voters.
But the Senate’s biggest proponents of repeal say Trump is right in a sense. Among 52 Senate Republicans, there are 50 votes for the idea of repeal. They’ve just stumbled on the process.
Graham remains optimistic. “We’re at 48 — we need two more, and we may actually get more than two,” he said.
Graham still maintains he could have passed his bill if he had more time, if the budget rule had not expired. “The question is: If you started over and used a regular order process, can you get to 50? And I believe we can,” he said. “I believe the product is getting better and better in the eyes of the Senate.”
There are many hurdles — including the fact that the Congressional Budget Office hasn’t finished a full score of the Graham-Cassidy bill. Every CBO score of the other repeal bills forecast that millions of people would lose insurance — one reason they all collapsed.
The House managed to narrowly pass a separate Obamacare repeal bill last spring after months of false starts. It was a tough vote for many House members, who are still miffed that the Senate left them hung out to dry.
What it really boils down to, though, is that no senator is ready to flip a thumbs down to thumbs up.
“We need to fix it,” John McCain (R-Ariz.) said of the Obamacare markets. “And the fix, I think, is larger than Cassidy-Graham. It’s much larger than that.”
But McCain says if Republicans are able to pass a bill to try to stabilize the Obamacare markets — which was introduced this week by Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) — it could provide some momentum for repeal.
“To get something done usually makes it easier for something else to get done,” he said.
The GOP’s only glimmer of hope is that Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who voted “no” on repeal over the summer, is open to the idea of Graham-Cassidy. But it’s not accurate to say she’s locked in to be the deciding 50th vote.
“I don’t know what the vote count is on Graham-Cassidy,” Murkowski said. “I think in fairness, because we didn’t see that [roll call vote] materialize, to suggest that there is a hard number — maybe it’s wishful thinking, maybe it’s speculation, but I think it remains to be seen.”
Murkowski likes the idea of block grants to states, but insists that Alaska can’t be pushed into a one-size-fits-all solution or endure a huge cut in funding.
But she didn’t say “never” either.
“Trying to fit us into a system that is a better fit for the lower 48 might not work for us, so give us more flexibility here, and that was the beauty behind the Graham-Cassidy concept,” she said.