Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) panned House Speaker Paul Ryan’s bill to repeal and replace Obamacare during a closed meeting with constituents on Saturday, according to audio obtained by POLITICO.
The remarks by Heller, the most vulnerable GOP senator on the ballot next year, are another sign of the difficult prospects the House bill faces in the other chamber. Already, more than a half-dozen senators have criticized the bill, and Republicans can only afford to lose two votes.
The Nevada senator has been quiet about the GOP’s efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act as he prepares to run for reelection as the only Republican incumbent from a state that Hillary Clinton won. But Heller raised significant issues to state Republicans and senior center residents about how the bill would affect the state’s Medicaid population, even as he declined to say that health care is a fundamental right.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say that every American has a right to an automobile,” Heller said to guffaws from liberal attendees, who frequently challenged him and at one point called him a liar. “Do I believe that all Americans should have access to health care? Absolutely I do.”
Still, Heller took a far softer tack than the law’s staunchest opponents, frequently speaking of making “changes” to Obamacare rather than eviscerating the law as some Republicans say they will do. He made no commitment to support the House-led effort to repeal the law, which could come before the Senate this month.
“Not everything in the Affordable Care Act is bad,” Heller told the crowd in Henderson, a suburb of Las Vegas, as protesters demonstrated outside. “As we move forward and take a look at some of these changes and what’s occurring, I think we ought to embrace what’s good in the Affordable Care Act.”
His strategy on Obamacare shows the tightrope Heller is walking in a state that’s trending Democratic but has a strong presence of conservative activists. Heller was critical of Trump in last year’s election. At the Saturday event, he urged Trump to “keep his promise” to enact a trillion-dollar infrastructure program and said having a “safety net” is a core responsibility of government.
But the focus was mostly on how Heller handles Obamacare repeal. Nevada has nearly 300,000 people who have obtained insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, and the state’s GOP governor, Brian Sandoval, has warned against changing it. The House bill would keep the expansion through 2019 before winding it down, although some conservatives want to begin gutting it earlier.
“They’re talking about 2020, now they’re talking about making the changes in 2018,” Heller said. “That’s not enough time for Nevada to adjust. We need time to adjust. I want to move that thing up four or five years,” he added, referring to a longer delay.
Heller also said that he opposed the bill’s preservation of the so-called “Cadillac tax” on high-cost insurance plans. Heller and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) have sought to kill the tax for years.
“My argument with the Republicans is if we’re going to make the changes, don’t repeal the Affordable Care Act so you can keep all the taxes. I think that’s unfair and I don’t think that’s a responsible way to move forward,” Heller said. The House bill does eliminate some taxes on wealthy people.
Heller’s comments underscore the difficult prospects the House measure faces in the Senate should it make it to the chamber. The Nevada senator said he was urging Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow the Senate to make significant changes to the bill. Conservatives in both chambers have knocked the plan as “Obamacare-lite,” and centrists are concerned about its rollback of the Medicaid expansion.
The Nevada senator’s criticisms of the effort have been more under the radar. He faced protesters outside the Henderson event for avoiding public town hall events that have turned into forums for liberal activists. Heller has instead focused on private events and “tele-town halls” in which constituents can call in. Heller also rarely speaks to reporters in Washington, often using routes in the Capitol to avoid the media.
Asked by one person Saturday why he won’t have an open town hall meeting, Heller responded: “Did anybody force you to come today? This is a town hall meeting.” That remark led to shouting matches between Heller’s supporters and his hecklers, with one organizer telling attendees they are “acting like children.”
It wasn’t the only moment of hostility. Heller claimed at one point that the economy was entirely stagnant under former President Barack Obama despite steady growth after the recession.
“It’s been eight years, eight years since I’ve heard a treasury secretary talk about economic growth,” Heller said. “They never talked about economic growth. You know what? We didn’t have economic growth for the last eight years.”
A woman shot back: “Liar, liar pants on fire.” Officials at the event then tried to remove her, according to the audio.
Heller ended the exchange with this response: “I want to thank both Republicans and Democrats for being here today.”
Indeed, the Nevada senator offered something to liberals and conservatives as part of his balancing act. He said he supports Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court and defended a recent vote to reverse regulations that required the Social Security Administration to flag people with mental illness for gun-sale background checks. Heller said he does not believe mentally ill people should be able to buy weapons, but also said that people can “recover” from mental illness and be able to keep their Second Amendment rights.
And when asked about veterans’ health care, Heller touted an Obama-era program that allows some veterans to seek health care closer to home.
“Bernie Sanders will tell you that he and I teamed up to make these necessary changes for our veterans,” Heller said. “Sanders will be the first to tell you: That when I gave him my word, I stuck with it.”
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