Altering Obamacare is “still being looked at. But not with the intensity it was.”
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Politico, February 1, 2018 by Burgess Everett
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Republicans are giving up on their years-long dream of repealing Obamacare.
Though the GOP still controls both chambers of Congress and maintains the ability to jam through a repeal-and-replace bill via a simple majority, there are no discussions of doing so here at House and Senate Republicans’ joint retreat at The Greenbrier resort. Republicans doubt they can even pass a budget providing for the powerful party-line “reconciliation” procedure used to pass tax reform last year, much less take on the politically perilous task of rewriting health care laws in an election year.
“I don’t think leadership wants to,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who worked with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on a last-ditch repeal effort last fall. “In the sense of Graham-Cassidy, a partisan exercise? Doesn’t look like it.”
Republicans’ decision to abstain from another attempt at gutting Barack Obama’s health law — at least this year — goes back on a pledge the party has made to voters since 2010. And it underscores how Republicans overpromised in their ability to reform the nation’s health care and never fully recognized how divided the party is over key Obamacare planks like protecting pre-existing conditions and preserving the law’s Medicaid expansion.
And now the GOP is facing reality. Senate Republicans would struggle to pass a bill slashing at Obamacare under the best circumstances this year. They lost a Senate seat in Alabama in December and are down another vote as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) undergoes cancer treatment. GOP leaders would rather put the debacle of last year’s failed attempt behind them.
“It would be a heavy lift. I think everybody knows,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 3 GOP leader. “We sort of tested the limits of what we can do in the Senate last year. And we’re one vote down from where we were then.”
Republicans very well may lose the House or Senate this fall, which would officially stick a fork in their efforts to move a partisan agenda item like Obamacare repeal while President Donald Trump is in office. But there appears to be no urgency to capitalize on unified Republican control: None of the lawmakers interviewed for this story believe that Congress will pass a budget this year that would allow Republicans to use reconciliation to evade the Senate’s supermajority requirements.
And rather than make a major play to the frustrated conservative base on health care, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has charted a bipartisan approach in his comments when asked about the matter.
“I don’t think we’re going to get a budget. And without a budget I don’t think we can do reconciliation,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “When you hear the leader speak, he’s speaking about bipartisanship. So I think that’s the direction we’re going to go in this year.”
The news is not being taken well in some corners of the party. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who leads the conservative House Freedom Caucus, winced when reminded of the party’s failure to repeal Obamacare and the lack of formal discussion on undermining the law at the retreat.
Yet he was hopeful that Republicans can pick up Senate seats in November and try again with a bigger Senate majority.
“Do I see a full repeal of Obamacare happening on a reconciliation vehicle this year? No. And to suggest otherwise would be to ignore 51 votes in the Senate,” Meadows said. “If we keep the majority in the House and they get a larger majority in the Senate then you might look at a reconciliation vehicle after November.”
Republicans took some heart in having recently passed laws that repealed Obamacare’s individual mandate and delayed some Obamacare taxes. And most GOP lawmakers said that they believed those provisions are as far as they can go given the political constraints and the ugly nature of last year’s attempt, including a failed Senate vote and months of party infighting.
But Graham, for one, is not willing to give up. After a herculean, if failed, effort in September to push legislation repealing Obamacare and block granting federal health care funds to the states, Graham said the GOP will be savaged by its voters if it tries to give up on fully scuttling the law.
“We’re coming back at it. Republicans have no choice but to try to replace Obamacare after repealing the individual mandate,” he said, citing an obligation to GOP voters to try again. “I’m certainly not giving up without a fight. And to any Republican who thinks you can avoid the consequences of Obamacare collapsing, you’re kidding yourself.”
Asked about Graham’s latest push, Thune responded: “We’ll believe it when we see it.”
“If he’s got 50 for it, more power [to him],” Thune said. “The leader’s not going to bring that up if he can’t get it through.”
In the meantime, some members of both parties are pushing bills to help stabilize the insurance markets, hoping to bring down premiums after Trump eliminated key payments to health insurers. But even that effort has flagged in recent weeks as conservatives have fought any effort seen as propping up Obamacare, most notably the stabilization bill written by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
“It’s on the backburner too,” Capito said. Altering Obamacare is “still being looked at. But not with the intensity it was.”