Senate Republicans’ last-gasp Obamacare repeal effort is gaining steam, with key senators who tanked the last push in July signaling new openness to the latest attempt and GOP leaders growing increasingly bullish.
While the proposal written by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) remains short of 50 votes, it also has just one hard “no” vote, from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and another expected “no” in Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Three “no” votes would kill the bill, but in an encouraging sign for repeal proponents, no one is stepping forward yet to deliver that final nail.
Instead, wavering senators remain on the sidelines. Conservative Sen. Mike Lee of Utah is warming to the legislation, which would turn federal health care funding into block grants for states and eliminate Obamacare’s coverage mandate, while Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is undecided.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas called the discussions “serious” but “preliminary,” declining to commit the chamber to voting on the bill. But it was clear that Senate leaders were far more upbeat after huddling on Monday evening with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
“The odds are improving,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican leader. “I told Bill Cassidy he’s the grave robber. This thing was 6 feet under. And I think he’s revived it to the point that there’s a lot of positive buzz and forward momentum.”
A Republican senator who has spoken to GOP leaders said Murkowski is likely the bellwether. This senator said that GOP leaders believe other undecided senators will support the bill if it is put on the floor and that McConnell has begun whipping the bill because he “realizes that there’s life out there.”
“We are one vote away from doing this thing,” the senator insisted.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who delivered the decisive vote to sink the party’s last Obamacare repeal bill, has aired gripes with the rushed process this time around. But he has not said explicitly he would vote against the measure. McCain and Murkowski separately met with McConnell on Monday.
“We need to go to regular order,” McCain told reporters. “I am not supportive of the bill yet. We need to talk more about it.”
Taken together, the movements keep the Obamacare effort alive another day. The Senate’s ability to repeal the law through a majority vote expires after Sept. 30, and there is immense political pressure on the party to follow through on its pledge to kill the Democratic health care law.
“Everybody goes home, everybody hears the … disappointment on the part of supporters,” said Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. “That changed the dynamic.”
Paul appears committed to bringing the bill down, however, frustrating his colleagues. He held a press event panning the bill on Monday and has bashed Cassidy and Graham’s work frequently on Twitter. President Donald Trump spoke with Paul on Monday but the Kentucky senator was unmoved.
“I’m for repealing Obamacare. I know that sounds like a quaint notion,” Paul said.
McConnell has told colleagues he will not bring up the bill for a vote unless it has the votes.
And if he does forge ahead, it likely will be without a full Congressional Budget Office analysis. The CBO said Monday it would provide a preliminary analysis by next week but would be unable to deliver full coverage and premium numbers until October.
That alone might be enough for Collins to oppose the bill. She called the lack of a CBO score “problematic” but is not yet committed to voting no.
“Based on my analysis, I’m concerned about what the effect would be on coverage, on Medicaid spending in my state, on the fundamental changes in Medicaid that would be made,” Collins said.
Yet that did not seem to bother other Republicans. Trump is urging Senate Republicans to move forward and McConnell is actively gauging whether he can get 50 of the Senate’s 52 GOP senators to back the bill. Marc Short, Trump’s legislative affairs director, was spotted meeting with top Republican staffers on Monday.
Murkowski told reporters she is undecided, a significant development given her opposition to previous efforts.
“What I’m trying to figure out is the impact on my state,” Murkowski said after speaking to her governor. Asked which way she leans, she responded: “I can’t say that, because I don’t have the hard numbers.”
She was then pressed on whether Trump could persuade her, after he failed to last time. “If he has the numbers, then yeah!” Murkowski said. “It’s important to understand what this means to your respective states.”
Several Republicans — including Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Jerry Moran of Kansas and Rob Portman of Ohio — said they needed more time to review the bill. None was willing to go on the record as a solid “yes” or be the third announced “no” to kill the bill.
“I don’t have any analysis yet,” said Moran, whose opposition killed an earlier version of the GOP repeal bill. But he said the last-minute maneuvering shouldn’t be a surprise: “You’d expect something that’s such a significant Republican priority to be revived at this late hour.”
In another progression on Monday, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey endorsed the bill, ratcheting up pressure on McCain to fall in line. McCain, who is close friends with Graham, could again be the decisive vote.
But if he ends up supporting the bill this time around, it would be through gritted teeth.
“I gave a long speech on the floor of the Senate, in case you missed it, about doing it with regular order,” McCain said Monday.
Though Paul continued to savage the bill on Monday, other conservatives are open to the flexibility for states that the Graham-Cassidy bill would provide, even if it keeps intact many of Obamacare’s taxes. A spokesman for Lee said the Utah senator is “very encouraged by the [state] waiver provisions in the bill and we are working with Cassidy’s office on some technical changes.”
The latest movement is alarming Democrats, who began introducing more liberal proposals last week as it appeared the battle to protect Obamacare was won. Instead, the health care fight appears as serious as ever.
“This bill is worse than the last bill. And it will slash Medicaid, get rid of pre-existing conditions [coverage],” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. “It’s very, very bad.”
Elana Schor contributed to this report.
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