The Senate is slated to vote on a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system early next week. There’s just one hitch: No one knows what they’re actually voting on.
When reporters asked the Senate’s number-two Republican, John Cornyn, if his fellow party members wanted to see the bill before they were asked to vote on it – a vote that could ultimately rip health insurance from tens of millions of people and potentially cost senators their seats – he said, “Yeah, but that’s a luxury we don’t have.”
Cornyn and other GOP leaders are pitching skeptical Republicans on voting to start debate on a bill, which will then allow any member of either party to offer any amendments they want. Hence, the final package will be drastically different than the bill they started with.
“You can’t debate something that you don’t initiate the debate on,” Cornyn said. “Everybody can offer endless amendments. So if anybody’s got a better idea, they can offer that and get a vote on it. In the end, 50 people are going to decide whether we have an outcome or not, so any three people can kill the bill at the end if they’re not satisfied.”
That math has become more complicated now that Sen. John McCain is scheduled to be out of Washington as he recovers from having a brain tumor removed last week.
But many rank-and-file Republicans are slowly coalescing around the party leaders’ pitch. The promise that they can offer whatever amendments they want means their favored approach could win the day on the Senate floor.
Take Sen. Bill Cassidy, who teamed up with his colleague Lindsey Graham to craft an amendment that would keep the Affordable Care Act’s taxes in place while sending that money back to the states as a block grant. Cassidy says he can vote to start the debate even though he couldn’t answer a reporter’s question about what he’d be voting on. “No – no, ma’am. The simple answer is no,” Cassidy said. “We need to get on the bill to debate further. Obviously I’m pushing [the Graham-Cassidy Amendment], and I think block granting this to the states actually works. … So if it would move us to the opportunity to vote on Graham-Cassidy, I’d be all for it.”
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is pushing a straight Obamacare repeal, while Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee want to allow insurance companies to offer cheap, bare-bones insurance plans that are forbidden under Obamacare.
With the GOP openly divided on what health care reform should even look like, frustration is growing. Upon leaving a closed-door health care lunch Thursday, moderate Republican Lisa Murkowski rebuffed questions on how the internal GOP health care debate is going.
“Good halibut and salmon,” Murkowski said. She’s not the only one growing increasingly frustrated at the awkward process – which has been more secretive than the Obamacare debate that the GOP decried for years.
“It’s taken on sort of a bizarre bidding process,” Republican Sen. Bob Corker vented to reporters. “I’ll move to proceed anything that Mitch [McConnell] wants to proceed to, but I fear that it’s beginning to lack coherency. … Again, it’s beginning to feel bizarre – much like how Obamacare was put together, where desperate things are added and put in. Hopefully that will calm down.”
But Corker says he’ll vote to move the debate forward, and, like President Trump, he’s calling for straight repeal that would begin in two years’ time, which he thinks will force both parties to get to a proper negotiating table.
“A repeal with a transition [would force] the two sides to sit down and come up with something that will stand the test of time,” Corker said.
Still, more moderate Republicans are saying their party leaders are rushing ahead when they should be slowing down.
“I don’t even know what we’re proceeding to next week. I don’t know whether we’re proceeding to the House bill, a new version of the Senate bill, the old version of the Senate bill, the 2015 repeal-and-hope-that-we-come-up-with-something-in-two-years bill. I truly don’t,” a visibly exasperated Sen. Susan Collins told reporters.
Collins said the president isn’t helping the process by pressuring the GOP to vote on something – anything, really.
“I’m unclear, having heard the president and read his tweets, exactly which bill he wants to pass and whether he is for just repealing, or repealing and replacing, whether he’s for the Senate bill. I think there’s a bit of a lack of clarity, but there was no lack of clarity in his determination to have us pass a bill,” Collins said.
For her part, Collins said she’ll oppose moving to even debate a bill because she wants to hold open hearings and bring Democrats into the process.
“I’ve been very straightforward about where I stand,” she said. “I really think at this point, particularly with the divisions in our conference … we should go back to the normal order, have hearings on the problems with the Affordable Care Act, which there are many, and see if we can get bipartisan bills reported from the Health Committee and the Finance Committee.”
Democrats are increasingly willing to be dealt in, it seems. Sen. Joe Manchin has started conversations with all the former governors who are in the Senate – they all administered Medicaid and know their states’ unique insurance regulations, he’s said.
Fellow Democratic Sen. Mark Warner has offered a proposal to allow insurance to be purchased across state lines – a major concession to his Republican counterparts – while also creating a new Copper Obamacare insurance plan that would be cheaper than the current Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze plans.
Other Democrats are begging Republicans to work with them to immediately stabilize the health insurance marketplace.
“If we can focus our immediate attention to saving lives in our democracy, that is what needs our immediate attention. And to do it so in a satisfying bipartisan way, what that serves is as a confidence-builder,” said Sen. Tom Carper. “Let’s do first things first, Mr. President – start by stabilizing the marketplaces, for us to do two or three things to that will help stabilize it. And hit the pause button, and then they have their vote and we get going.”
For now, no Republicans are openly working across the aisle, but Carper said he’s been texting at least one Republican who says he’s willing to work with him, but only after next week’s vote goes down – if it goes down at all. In the meantime, whatever bill they might vote on remains to be seen.