The Senate was once hailed as the world’s most deliberative body – where lawmakers are elected for six-year terms in order to give them space from their voters so they can weigh policy and engage their 99 counterparts in serious debate while delicately crafting the laws that guide the rest of us. But the contemporary Senate is marred by gridlock, bitterness, even pettiness, not to mention permanent campaigns, constant fundraising and political stunts. The latter seems to be why Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has kept his personally crafted health care overhaul secret from even his own members for weeks.
But Thursday morning, all GOP senators finally were invited to see the details of the bill for the first time – a move that still didn’t make every Republican cheery. On the way into the closed-door, Republican-only meeting, Sen. Lisa Murkowski bemoaned the process.
“I am not a reporter, and I am not a lobbyist, so I’ve seen nothing,” Murkowski told Independent Journal Review reporter Haley Byrd.
After weeks of anticipation, some Republicans were surprised they weren’t even given copies of the 142-page bill; they had to go back to their offices and print out copies like the rest of the public.
“Obviously, we’ve got a lot to look at,” a visibly frustrated Murkowski tells Rolling Stone upon exiting the meeting.
The senators were given a briefing on the major points of the sweeping bill, which would slash funding for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, end the individual mandate and do away with taxes on the wealthy and insurers that helped pay for the Affordable Care Act.
“There’s a lot to digest – this is a big, complicated bill,” Republican Sen. Pat Toomey says. He’s seen as a key vote because he represents purple Pennsylvania, which is one of 32 states that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
While many Republicans leaving the meeting were keeping their powder dry until they – or at least their health care staffers – had time to digest the behemoth rewrite of one-sixth of the nation’s economy, other senators hailed the legislation, even though they hadn’t read the bill or learned of its contents until moments earlier.
“It’s much better than Obamacare. It’s much better than any deal we’ll negotiate a year from now with our partners across the aisle,” Republican Sen. David Perdue tells a flock of eager reporters as he walks out of the meeting. He adds that it’s much better than the House-passed bill that President Trump reportedly told Republican senators was “mean.”
When reporters press Perdue on what makes the bill better than the House version, he demurs: “I’ve got to go read it first.”
Others who are praising the bill say it will alleviate their voters from the “burdens” of Obamacare.
“Oh my heavens, yes,” Republican Sen. Roger Wicker tells Rolling Stone of whether he the legislation would benefit his constituents. “It saves two very important programs – Medicare and Medicaid – and gets us a long way to stabilizing the market.”
Another reporter asks Wicker – who used to run the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm and has a good sense of the party’s diverse and disparate members – if he thinks the legislation can pass the full Senate. “I think it will. It’s a draft at this point, and we’re working through several suggestions,” he says.
But the bill’s chances remain in doubt. With 52 Republicans in the chamber, party leaders can only afford to lose two votes. (Vice President Mike Pence would break a tie.) Already Sen. Rand Paul has signaled that he and three other Republicans oppose the bill in its current form. “[I]t does not appear this draft as written will accomplish the most important promise that we made to Americans: to repeal Obamacare and lower their health care costs,” Paul said in a joint statement with Sens. Ted Cruz, Ron Johnson and Mike Lee.
“Victory will be enacting reforms that repeal Obamacare and substantially reduce premiums so that families who are struggling can afford health insurance,” Cruz tells a gaggle of reporters in the basement of the Capitol.
As for whether the far-right wing of the party is risking losing more moderate support, the senators leading the cabal think they can negotiate a compromise that can win the support of 50 Republicans.
“I think there is a way to placate both,” Paul says. “I want 100 percent repeal, but I would probably accept some percentage of repeal … we have to be working in that direction. It’s not a good sign when we’re keeping most of the Obamacare subsidies if not more.”
Meanwhile, the timing of that vote is still up in the air. Lawmakers head out of town next Friday for their weeklong 4th of July recess, and then they’re only in Washington for another three weeks before they get another recess during the entire month of August. With that narrow calendar, McConnell wants to wrap up health care and move on to other priorities; between the Russia investigation and the health care debate, all the oxygen has been sucked out of Washington during the start of Trump’s rookie year in the White House.
Moderate Republicans are pushing back on that rushed timeline. “It’s a significant piece of legislation, and people have a lot of questions,” Sen. Bob Corker tells a throng of reporters engulfing him and blocking foot traffic just off the Senate floor. “I think everybody will go through it very diligently.”
Others in the GOP are still complaining that Republican leaders never allowed even one hearing on their draft proposal, for which voters will likely punish the party in the 2018 midterms, they say.
“Health care is such an important thing, I think we should have debated in open, in committee hearings, have both sides bring in witnesses,” Sen. Paul told reporters earlier in the week. “If you do it on one side only, what you’re setting yourself up for is failure. The public is not going to accept it if only one side does it. If you at least have open committee hearings and hear from both sides, I think that’s better.”
As for Democrats, they’re trying to derail the GOP health plan using any tools they can. At the start of the week, they took over the Senate floor and tried to force debate on the previously secret health measure. They’ve also held press conferences daily on the Capitol grounds to highlight what they say are the negative effects of the rewrite of Obamacare, and have pulled some publicity stunts – for instance, three younger Democrats streamed a video of themselves going at the Congressional Budget Office looking for the bill. But it’s unclear if they have enough tools to block the effort.
“Look, it’s hard for me to believe that for something as important as a bill that would remake health care for hundreds of millions of people, that they’re holding no hearings,” Democratic Sen. Chris Coons told Rolling Stone earlier this week. “There’s a reason that President Trump called the House version of Obamacare repeal ‘mean.’ It’s because it cuts Medicaid by too much, and it cuts Medicare by too much just to fund a tax cut. I think there’s a real reason that the Republican leadership here in the Senate is hiding this bill even from its own members.”