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McConnell delays vote on GOP health bill until after break; measure may need support of Democrats

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delayed a vote on Republican senators’ health bill Tuesday, saying it needed redrafting to get the votes it needs to pass.

Republicans have 52 of the 100 Senate seats, so McConnell can afford only two defections, and six GOP senators had rejected the bill when he pulled it. Three more did later.

After Senate Republicans met with President Trump, McConnell said the Senate will not take up the bill until “a couple of weeks after this week.” He disputed the fear of some that taking more time will make it harder to pass a bill.

“We’re not quite there, but I think we’ve got a really good chance of getting there,” he said. “It’ll just take us a little bit longer,” he said.

McConnell and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., leave a meeting with President Trump (Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford)

But McConnell also went public with a private warning he had issued to Trump and other Republicans: If they can’t pass a bill, they will have to work on a bipartisan compromise with Senate Democrats, led by Charles Schumer of New York.

“Either Republicans will agree and change the status quo; or markets will continue to collapse and we’ll have to sit down with Senator Schumer,” McConnell said. “And my suspicion is in any negotiation with Democrats will include none of the reforms that we would like to make on the market side and the Medicaid side. So for all of those reasons, we need to come up with a solution. The American people elected us to do that, and we’re working hard to get there.”

After releasing the bill last Thursday, McConnell was willing to change it to get votes, even with amendments on the floor, “but the timetable proved to be too ambitious, perhaps too highhanded,” writes Dan Balz, chief political reporter for The Washington Post. “The resisters wanted changes — and several demanded more time. That was a toxic combination that McConnell could not overcome. . . . The road ahead will test him as perhaps never before.”

The bill’s chances dimmed after the Congressional Budget Office said Monday that it would lead to an estimated 22 million more Americans to be uninsured by the end of the coming decade while reducing federal spending by $321 billion.

“Under the Senate bill, CBO warned bluntly, higher premiums and deductibles would mean ‘few low-income people would purchase any plan.’ That’s why, after the CBO report, more Republicans began whispering that it might be better for McConnell to let the bill die,” writes Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus.

“The CBO changed the narrative in a bad way,” an unnamed Republican lobbyist told McManus. “It looks as if we will be sliding Obamacare back to the Democrats — which is what Trump wanted from Day One.” McManus translates: “What he meant was: If Republicans give up and leave Obamacare in place, they can try to blame Democrats for any problems that ensue.”

McManus says this week’s developments have increased speculation that McConnell “secretly wants his health-care bill to fail. . . . In a normal political universe, McConnell would want his bill to pass – and my guess is that he still does. But he may be reconsidering.”

McConnell remained firm that he wants a bill to pass. He told reporters, “The one thing that I would say is that everybody around the table is interested in getting to yes, interested in getting an outcome. Because we know the status quo is simply unacceptable, unsustainable, and no action is just not an option.”

But if the GOP passes a bill on it own, McManus writes, “Republicans will own every problem in the American health-care system. . . . McConnell hates to fail. But his chances of winning are eroding. According to some Republicans, he’s warming to the idea of taking a dive. It may be the only way he has to show Trump how difficult governing really is.”

However, the CBO estimate that McConnell’s bill would reduce the deficit more than the House bill gives him room to negotiate. Mike Allen of Axios reports, “An administration source insists there’s a path to passage in the Senate, just as there was in the House despite the naysayers.

The path as this source sees it: Some sort of deal that gives money in the short-term to the moderates in exchange for long-term reforms for the conservatives. The source said the short-term money would bolster Medicaid and the response to the opioid crisis. The conservative sweeteners would include spending-growth-rate assurances and regulation changes.”

James Hohmann, who supervises the “Daily 202” roundup for The Washington Post, analyzes McConnell’s performance: “The Senate majority leader believed that the blowback for keeping his health-care bill secret would be less than the blowback for negotiating it in public. On optics, he was correct. Polls show that most voters don’t really care about process.

“They weren’t particularly angry that he sought to forge consensus behind closed doors – or that he was being hypocritical by doing exactly what he used to attack Democrats for. But the Kentuckian misread the degree to which members of his own conference wanted a seat at the table. . . . There was technically a working group of senators that came up with the bill, but McConnell was in the driver’s seat.

“Republican senators who were invited to closed-door ‘listening sessions’ say they were sounded out about what they could and couldn’t support. But several grumbled that they couldn’t get any information out of leadership about what was and wasn’t on the table. Others said privately that the meetings felt less substantive and more like a box-checking exercise.”

“Postponing the vote is not necessarily fatal,” Hohmann concludes. “Never underestimate McConnell. Despite this miscalculation, he’s proven over 32 years in the Senate that he is a brilliant tactician. If he sincerely wants to get this done, he probably can find a way. But it will be the biggest legislative test of his tenure as majority leader.”

From Kentucky Health News

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