The Senate will not vote on Republicans’ latest bill to repeal Obamacare this week, putting an end, for now, to the GOP’s seven-year campaign promise to dismantle the health care law.
The decision was reached at a party lunch Tuesday after it became clear the plan would fail, GOP senators said. Three Senate Republicans had already said they would vote against the measure, and the GOP could only afford two defections.
“Why have a vote if you know what the outcome is and it’s not what you want,” said GOP Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. “I don’t know what you gain from that. But I do believe that the health care issue is not dead, and that’s what counts.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans are not giving up on a health care bill but made clear he wants a quick pivot to another issue where Republicans hope to notch a legislative victory: taxes.
“We haven’t given up on changing the American health-care system … We’re not going to do it this week, but it still lies ahead of us. We haven’t given up on that,” McConnell said Tuesday afternoon. “Where we go from here is tax reform.”
Vice President Mike Pence also told Republicans they should keep working on health care and not give up just because a key procedural deadline to pass the bill with a simple majority expires after Sept. 30.
“The vice president said that we need to resolve to do this now before this current Congress leaves office,” at the end of 2018, according to a Republican senator in the room.
“He does” want us to keep working, said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). “He’s conveyed it outside of that meeting [too]. The votes aren’t there so let’s keep massaging.”
How Republicans would do so was not decided, according to several Republican senators. A fast-track procedural tool to allow the GOP to repeal the health law is due to expire on Saturday. Without it, Republicans would need to gather 60 votes in the Senate, an impossibility with Democrats firmly behind Obamacare.
Some Republicans have floated the idea of renewing the fast-track powers for health care in the fiscal 2018 budget to allow for another shot at repeal.
But many others on Tuesday downplayed that possibility in favor of concentrating on tax reform.
It’s better to “focus on taxes right now,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who authored the latest effort with Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), said that Republicans will revisit the Obamacare repeal issue in mid-2018, using the budget resolution for fiscal 2019 to allow them to evade a Democratic filibuster.
Cassidy told reporters Republicans merely ran up against the clock.
“Time was the enemy,” he said. “Some people didn’t like the process so we needed hearings to have them feel better about the process and we didn’t have time for those hearings.”
It was unclear before the lunch whether McConnell and his divided conference would hold the vote.
Senate Republicans considered voting on a bill they knew was doomed to fail to show the conservative grass roots and the broader party that they did all they could to dismantle Obamacare. But there was also concern about the optics of going ahead with a failed vote.
Republicans were also privately worried that President Donald Trump could continue to attack them if they give up on the effort publicly.
The Graham-Cassidy bill gained surprising steam earlier this month, yet struggled to pick up the final handful of votes needed for Senate Republicans to pass Obamacare repeal with a simple majority. Republicans opposed to the bill included GOP Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, John McCain of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine, who formally announced her position Monday evening.
The bill would transform Obamacare funding into block grants for the states, make deep cuts to Medicaid and allow states to roll back insurance regulations, drawing opposition from moderate Republicans like Collins. McCain bemoaned the rushed process for moving a partisan bill. The conservative Paul, meanwhile, said the plan maintained too much of Obamacare. A number of other wary Republicans had yet to endorse the bill, and a flurry of last-ditch changes did nothing to win over skeptics.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who voted against Obamacare repeal in July, said Tuesday that she liked the concept of Graham-Cassidy, a move that many in the GOP viewed as a sign of progress. But she harshly criticized a “hard deadline and a lousy process” in a statement that didn’t say how exactly she would have voted.
“The U.S. Senate cannot get the text of a bill on a Sunday night, then proceed to a vote just days later, with only one hearing — and especially not on an issue that is intensely personal to all of us,” she said.
Democrats urged Republicans to drop their push to gut Obamacare and instead work with them to improve the law.
“To Sen. Collins and to the rest of my Republican colleagues, I want to say this: Once repeal is off the table, we want to work with you to improve the existing system,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Monday night. “Once this bill goes down, we’re ready to work with you to find a compromise that stabilizes markets, that lowers premiums.”
Even though Graham-Cassidy is dead for now, few Republicans expect a sudden shift to bipartisanship.
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who led bipartisan negotiations earlier this month with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), said the environment simply isn’t conducive to it.
“We stopped the bipartisan talks last week because my goal wasn’t just to get a bipartisan agreement — it was to get a bipartisan result. I didn’t see any way to get one in the current political environment,” he said, shortly before Collins announced her opposition. “That environment hasn’t changed, maybe it does change — but it hasn’t.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.
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