Republicans tried to buy themselves more time to work out an Obamacare replacement, with senators reaching late Thursday to approve a “skinny” repeal bill that they acknowledged was a “fraud” — but which they said they had to pass in order to keep the process alive.
Few seemed happy with the looming vote, which was a far cry from the repeal-and-replace that the GOP took to voters for the last seven years.
Instead, the slimmed-down repeal the Senate was aiming to pass would leave Obamacare’s economics in shambles, raising the prospect of premium increases for consumers and market disruptions for insurers who prefer certainty.
With no other option alive, however, GOP senators said that was better than admitting failure — and said they would vote to approve it, with the understanding that it never become law.
“The skinny bill as policy is a disaster,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. “The skinny bill as a replacement for Obamacare is a fraud.”
The plan would ditch Obamacare’s unpopular mandate requiring individuals to hold insurance and its rule requiring large employers to provide coverage.
It would shift federal money from Planned Parenthood to community health centers, raise a cap on contributions to tax-advantaged savings accounts to pay for out-of-pocket costs and extend a freeze on Obamacare’s tax on medical device sales for three more years.
“The American people have suffered under Obamacare for too long. It’s time to end the failed status quo,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
The bill would expand states’ ability to use waivers to abandon Obamacare’s list of mandated benefits, though the Senate parliamentarian flagged the language as incompatible with budget rules, meaning Democrats could block it.
It was still unclear late Thursday whether it would pass, as GOP leaders could not afford more than two defections from their 52-seat majority. Leaders released the bill around 10 p.m., leaving little time to think it over before an expected vote.
“This process is an embarrassment,” said Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that 15 million fewer people would hold insurance next year, slightly rising to 16 million by 2026 — largely because the mandate requiring people to get coverage would go away.
Democrats said 7 million of the coverage losses would be tied to people who are eligible for Medicaid, but might not realize it without the mandate.
Earlier Thursday, Mr. Graham and Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin threatened to doom the plan by withholding their votes unless House GOP leaders agreed to the slimmed-down bill to negotiate a better plan in a conference committee.
It was a remarkable request to the House, which had passed a replacement bill in May and was counting on the Senate to polish its product.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan told senators he was willing to set up a conference, but scolded senators for failing to pass any repeal bill of substance, saying they’ll have to pony up the votes at some point.
“If moving forward requires a conference committee, that is something the House is willing to do,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “The reality, however, is that repealing and replacing Obamacare still ultimately requires the Senate to produce 51 votes for an actual plan.”
Mr. Ryan’s statement appeared to ease some senators’ concerns, though others told news outlets it was insufficient since it didn’t foreclose the possibility of taking up a Senate-passed bill down the road.
Mr. Ryan said the slim bill would fall short of GOP goals, but includes “important reforms like eliminating the job-killing employer mandate and the requirement that forces people to purchase coverage they don’t want.”
“The House remains committed to finding a solution and working with our Senate colleagues, but the burden remains on the Senate to demonstrate that it is capable of passing something that keeps our promise, as the House has already done,” he said. “Until the Senate can do that, we will never be able to develop a conference report that becomes law.”
The daylong standoff with House leaders underscored how far the Republican push to repeal Obamacare had deteriorated.
The SenateGOP needed Vice President Mike Pence to break a 50-50 stalemate to even begin debate this week, and it failed to approve an Obamacare replacement that Mr. McConnell drafted and redrafted for weeks. Seven Republicans doomed a “clean” repeal bill later on, even though six of them had backed the same plan in 2015.
Their backs against the wall, Senate leaders floated a “lowest-common-denominator” bill that could rally enough support to open new talks with the House.
A conference would buy time for congressional scorekeepers and the Senate’s referee — the parliamentarian — to vet additional ideas that can pass with a simple majority, as Republicans try to pass an Obamacare rewrite under budget rules that allow them to avoid a Democratic filibuster.
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