Vote Delayed as Republicans Struggle to Marshal Support for Health Care Bill
The New York Times
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER and THOMAS KAPLAN
JUNE 27, 2017
WASHINGTON — Facing intransigent Republican opposition, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, announced on Tuesday that he will delay a vote on his legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, dealing President Trump an embarrassing setback on a key part of his agenda.
Republican leaders had hoped to take a page from the playbook used to get a bill over the line in the House, appeasing the most conservative members of their conference while pressuring moderates to fall in line with fewer concessions.
But as opposition mounted in both camps, even against a vote just to take up the bill, Mr. McConnell decided he would delay consideration until after the Senate’s weeklong July 4 recess.
“We will not be on the bill this week, but we will still be working to get at least 50 people in a comfortable place,” Mr. McConnell said.
That delay does not guarantee the senators will come together. Opposition groups will mount pressure campaigns on lawmakers in their home states, and policy divisions are deep.
“It’s hard to see how tinkering is going to satisfy my personal concerns,” Ms. Collins told reporters.
Negotiations on Tuesday that leaders hoped would move senators toward yes only exposed the fissures in the Republican Party. Conservatives were demanding that states be allowed to waive the Affordable Care Act’s prohibition on insurance companies charging sick people more for coverage and are asking for a more expansive waiver system for state regulators. They also wanted more money for tax-free health savings accounts to help people pay for private insurance.
Senators from states that expanded the Medicaid program — and Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine — would not brook many of those changes, especially the measure to severely undermine protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions. They wanted more money for mental health benefits for people addicted to opioids and money for states to cover people left behind by the rollback of the Medicaid program in both the House and Senate versions.
Three Republican senators — Ms. Collins, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — had announced they would vote against the motion to begin debate that had been scheduled to hit the Senate floor on Wednesday, joining Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, who made the same pledge on Friday.
A bevy of other senators from both flanks of the party seemed headed in the same direction if they did not see changes made to the Senate health care bill, leaving the measure in deep peril, since Republicans can only lose two votes from their own party.
The release of a Congressional Budget Office evaluation on Monday did little to help leaders roll up votes from either side of the fence. The budget office said the Senate bill would leave 22 million more uninsured after 10 years, while sending out-of-pocket medical expenses skyrocketing for the working poor and those nearing retirement.
The budget office did not provide conservatives with support for their demands either. The state waivers already in the Senate bill “would probably cause market instability in some areas” and “would have little effect on the number of people insured” by 2026, the analysis concluded. Adding still more waivers, including one that could allow insurers to price the sick out of the health care market, could deprive even more people of health care.
Even before Mr. McConnell’s decision, White House officials had braced for the likelihood that the procedural vote would fail and that they would have to revisit the measure after the Fourth of July recess — when they hoped to be able to woo Mr. Johnson, who has been a surprisingly fierce critic of the bill from the right. The senator has repeatedly warned that this week is too soon to vote on the health care measure, as Republican senate leaders have insisted they need to do.
Vice President Mike Pence, attended the Senate Republican lunch on Tuesday and then broke off for private meetings with Mr. Heller, a seemingly firm “no” and the first moderate Republican to break with Mr. McConnell over the bill, and Rob Portman of Ohio, who is feeling pressure from his state’s governor, John R. Kasich, to oppose the bill and defend Ohio’s Medicaid expansion.
Mr. Portman was the subject of a spirited evaluation of his open criticism of the bill by Mr. McConnell, who was frustrated with the expansion-state senators who showed their hand early to other wavering colleagues, dooming the bill for now. Mr. McConnell was unhappy that Mr. Portman seemed to be abandoning his previous stance on fiscal rectitude by opposing Medicaid cuts in the bill.
But the Ohio senator was getting it from both sides. Mr. Kasich appeared in Washington on Tuesday to sharply criticize the Senate bill. The governor said he was deeply concerned about millions of people losing coverage under the bill.
“Who would lose this coverage?” Mr. Kasich said. “The mentally ill, the drug addicted, the chronically ill. I believe these are people that need to have coverage.”
At the same news conference, Colorado’s Democratic governor, John W. Hickenlooper, said his state’s Republican senator, Cory Gardner, “understands the hardships and the difficulties in rural life.”
“This bill would punish people in rural Colorado,” Mr. Hickenlooper said, raising the pressure.
Doctors, hospitals and other health care provider groups came out strongly against the Senate bill, as did patient advocacy groups like the American Heart Association. But business groups were ramping up their support. In a letter on Tuesday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed the Senate bill and urged senators to vote for it.
The Senate bill “will repeal the most egregious taxes and mandates” of the Affordable Care Act, allowing employers to create more jobs, said Jack Howard, a senior vice president of the group. The bill, he noted, would repeal a tax on medical devices and eliminate penalties on large employers that do not offer coverage to employees.
A separate letter expressing general support for the Senate’s efforts was sent by a coalition of 28 business and employer groups including the National Association of Home Builders, the National Restaurant Association and the National Retail Federation.
But Senate conservatives found themselves squeezed between business sentiment and their conservative base. Club for Growth, an ardently conservative political action committee, came out strongly against the Senate measure on Tuesday.
“The Club for Growth and the American people took Republicans in Congress at their word when they promised to repeal every word – ‘root and branch’ – of Obamacare and replace it with a patient-centered approach to health care,” the group’s president, David McIntosh, said in a statement. “Only in Washington does repeal translate to restore. Because that’s exactly what the Senate GOP healthcare bill does: it restores Obamacare.”
Even the Trump administration is divided over what comes next, especially on the payment of subsidies to health insurance companies to compensate for reducing out-of-pocket costs for low-income people.
Mr. Trump has threatened to withhold the monthly payments as a way to induce Democrats to bargain with him over the future of the Affordable Care Act. Administration officials said Mr. Trump did not want to make the payments if the Senate did not pass a health care bill this week. But they said Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, had urged the White House not to cut off the payments abruptly.
A federal judge has ruled that the payments are illegal because Congress never appropriated money for them, but that ruling is being appealed. Any interruption of the payments could have a dire destabilizing effect on markets, insurers say. Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina recently blamed the Trump administration’s mixed signals on the subsidy for most of its proposed 23 percent spike in premiums next year.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, defended the administration’s position at his briefing on Friday.
“If the president were to hypothetically say that he’s going to make the payments in perpetuity or for a year, I think that continues to prop up a failed system,” Mr. Spicer said. “It continues to do wrong by the American taxpayer. And it also doesn’t lend itself to the expediency that I think we want to — help get a new health care system in place.”