Politics

Senate Republicans Commence Health Care Blame Game

Unclear what is next step for outstanding health issues

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell heads to the podium to speak to reporters about the GOP health care bill following the Senate Republicans’ policy lunch Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Frustration overtook Senate Republicans on Tuesday as the reality sunk in that they had failed again in fulfilling a seven-year campaign promise to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law.

And senators were looking to cast blame wherever they could find it.

They decried the time constraints of the budget reconciliation procedure they chose to advance legislation with only Republican support.

They chastised Democrats for their lack of assistance, despite making no serious effort to work across the aisle during the past nine months.

They blamed the top-down approach to negotiating the legislation that leadership employed.

They criticized the carve-outs for states whose senators were skeptical of the proposal, a strategy that resulted in near-daily updates to the already complex legislation.

Sponsors of the most recent repeal bill vowed to continue working on it, but several lawmakers were showing fatigue, and major questions remain about its future.

Some members of the GOP leadership pivoted to different issues, even as others called for talks to resume on a bipartisan patch to help stabilize the individual insurance markets.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday that the chamber would move on to an overhaul of the U.S. tax code instead of holding a vote on the measure — from Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Dean Heller of Nevada — to redo the U.S. health insurance system.

“Where we go from here is now tax reform,” McConnell told reporters after the weekly GOP policy lunch.

The Kentucky Republican said the Senate Budget Committee would hold a mark-up of the fiscal 2018 budget resolution next week, the first step in the budget reconciliation process — the same one used for the failed health care attempt — that will allow Republicans to try to advance a tax bill with only a simple majority of support.

Letting go

If this process has proven anything, it’s that the GOP is not ready to abandon its effort to repeal former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement, despite several devastating failures this year.

“We haven’t given up on changing the American health care system,” McConnell said.

Graham seconded that notion.

“With a process that gives more attention and time, we will repeal and replace Obamacare with a block grant,” the South Carolina Republican said.

Some members appeared to be on board.

“I think it’s the best approach I’ve seen in a long, long time,” Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota said.

Others were willing to scrap that proposal entirely.

“I’m ready to start over completely,” a visibly frustrated Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said. “I don’t even know what’s in the damned thing.”

Kennedy had harsh words for the process McConnell used to try to shore up support for the legislation, and called for all 52 Republican members to hold nightly meetings to discuss various ideas.

“Some of my colleagues tell me, ‘Well, it’s not done that way,’” he said. “Well, it looks to me like the way we’ve been doing it up here for about the past 10 years sucks.”

While he said he was on board with the bill last week, Kennedy blasted the large number of revisions that have taken place and criticized the carve-outs included in the most recent iteration for states such as Alaska and Maine.

Others chose to harp on the limited time frame the chamber had to analyze the most recent proposal, which would have dramatically reshaped the U.S. health care system by turning all the current federal funding for the health care law into a massive block grant for the states.

“I appreciate the efforts of my colleagues, Senator Graham and Senator Cassidy, but they have run up against a hard deadline and a lousy process. Time has not been on their side,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said in a statement.

“We just ran out of time,” Johnson said. “It was an iterative process. It’s very complex. It starts from a position of complexity, and ... trying to create greater equity in the distribution of federal health care dollars is a heavy lift with the clock ticking.”

Back to bipartisanship

Attention appears to have shifted back to a bipartisan health care effort spearheaded by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on that panel.

“There are going to be some things that in the near term may have to be done to stabilize markets, and that kind of thing can be done in a bipartisan way,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota said.

Murray said she is ready to jump back into the negotiations that were cut short last week after Alexander deemed the effort halted in order to shift focus to the Graham-Cassidy-Heller-Johnson bill.

“Damage has been done already — premiums are very likely to rise because of President Trump and Republican leaders — but we can still get a result that helps the people we serve,” she told reporters. “So let’s pick back up right where we left off, and let’s do it right now.”

Ditto the chairman. 

“I will consult with Senator Murray and with other senators, both Republicans and Democrats, to see if senators can find consensus on a limited bipartisan plan that could be enacted into law to help lower premiums and make insurance available to the 18 million Americans in the individual market in 2018 and 2019,” Alexander said in a statement. 

But coming to a bipartisan agreement will not get any easier in the wake of the latest unsuccessful repeal attempt.

“I’m not going to take more money and give it to insurance companies. The one thing I have learned, if giving money to insurance companies would provide better health care, we’d have great health care,” Graham said. “If you don’t fundamentally change Obamacare, how can you get a fundamentally different result?”

There are some pressing health care deadlines Congress needs to address immediately, including extending funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and community health centers.

Both programs expire at the end of September.

Andrew Siddons and Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.

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