The supposedly hard deadline at the end of the month to repeal Obamacare might not be so hard after all.
With their latest attempt to dismantle the health law on track to fail this week, GOP senators are already raising the prospect of going after it again with the same powerful tools that currently let them pass legislation with just 50 votes.
There is nothing to suggest Obamacare repeal would get any easier in the coming months and doing so may significantly hobble the Republican majority’s other chief legislative priority: tax reform. But facing a floundering repeal push, wrath from the base and a frustrated President Donald Trump, Republicans may have no other choice but to keep pushing to uproot the law.
“We’ve got to do both,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said of tackling both Obamacare repeal and tax reform next year. “They’re complicated by necessity. So I don’t think that takes away the complications. But I think we’re supposed to be able to handle complications.”
Hatch added, however: “If it’s used to screw everything up, I’m not for that.”
Here’s how it could be done: While the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that the repeal push under fiscal 2017 must die after Sept. 30, Republicans could provide reconciliation instructions for both health care and tax reform in the fiscal 2018 budget resolution that Congress must pass to again unlock the fast-track procedural powers. That might entail some procedural hurdles, but one GOP aide said Monday that because the Finance Committee has jurisdiction over about 95 percent of health care policy, “it’s not like we couldn’t slip it in anyway.”
Alternatively, Republicans could reserve the fiscal 2018 budget for tax reform as planned, but then take up a budget for fiscal 2019 early next year and write reconciliation instructions that addresses Obamacare repeal in that resolution, according to GOP sources. Doing so would put the contentious issue of health care back in the spotlight during the 2018 midterm elections.
Republicans are expected to pass their next budget in the coming weeks. Even so, no decision needs to be made immediately. The reconciliation instructions will require the Senate Finance Committee to come up with savings. The committee, because it oversees both tax and health, will be able tap into policy from both areas, according to GOP sources.
“The issue’s not going away. We’ll be revisiting this issue at some point,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican. “If we can’t do it in a reconciliation vehicle this year, then maybe it’s the 2019 [budget]. I don’t know. We’ll see.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the namesake of the GOP’s latest repeal effort which is now opposed by at least three Republican senators, has already vowed to vote against a budget resolution that doesn’t allow for the health care battle to go on. So has Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), another lead backer of the Graham-Cassidy bill. With just 52 GOP senators, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can only afford two defections on a budget measure.
The more acute problem for Senate GOP leadership is that both Graham and Johnson sit on the Senate Budget Committee, where Republicans hold just a one-seat majority. If Graham and Johnson both follow through on their threat, they would tank next year’s budget measure — and tax reform — even before it hits the Senate floor.
“My preference obviously would be to pass [Obamacare repeal] this week,” Johnson said. “But if that’s not the case, I agree with Sen. Graham. We’re both on the Budget Committee and we’ll insist on passing a budget that would have reconciliation instructions for both tax reform and health care reform.”
However, Republicans are far from certain to try this maneuver.
McConnell is skeptical of the plan to combine Obamacare repeal and tax reform in next year’s budget, according to two GOP senators and another senior Republican source.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said it was premature to discuss a combo package while the Senate is still working on repeal, but said “no decision’s been made yet” on whether Republicans will try it.
The committee’s chairman, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, declined to say whether he’s considering the idea.
Other Senate Republicans won’t go as far as Graham and Johnson by threatening opposition to the budget resolution, but say they are definitely open to taking another stab at Obamacare repeal in future reconciliation attempts.
“I think you can’t not have the health care debate go on because we have to get a resolution on this,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “Whatever we can use to be able to help resolve this for the people of my state, I want to be able to do that.”
“Absolutely. We need to get the job done. We need to keep working at it until we accomplish the task,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). “We need to use whatever procedural tools are necessary to honor the promise we made to the American people to repeal Obamacare.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also indicated Monday that he was open to the idea, saying “there’s no reason why” the Senate couldn’t tackle both policy issues in a budget measure.
But the rising demand from some GOP senators to keep pressing on health care is throwing yet another roadblock into the leadership’s plan to tackle tax reform. That effort is set for a major week, with the so-called “Big Six” tax negotiators releasing a blueprint Wednesday, the same day Trump travels to Indiana to sell the plan.
Senate Republicans had already been making progress toward next year’s budget to lay the groundwork for tax reform. GOP Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania struck a deal last week on the scope of tax breaks in the budget measure which had been one of the final sticking points of a fiscal 2018 resolution.
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), another member of the Budget Committee, said if the GOP’s health care push fails on party lines this week and that Democrats won’t make major concessions to the GOP in bipartisan talks, it’s not clear how combining Obamacare repeal and tax cuts would help.
“I don’t want to jeopardize tax. We’ve done this for eight months, it’s got to get fixed, let the committee keep working on it,” Perdue said. “So I really believe we’ve got to get to tax, that’s my top priority right now before we run out of time,” he said.
Other Republicans were more blunt.
“I think we need to move onto tax reform,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said. “I think this bill’s dead.”
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