Se­nate leader says work to do, cuts re­cess by half

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE -

WASHINGTON — Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, R- Ky., an­nounced Tues­day that he would shorten the Se­nate’s Au­gust re­cess by half, say­ing Repub­li­cans need more time to achieve their leg­isla­tive goals. He cited de­lays caused by pro­tracted ne­go­ti­a­tions over health care leg­is­la­tion and con­tin­ued op­po­si­tion from Democrats on sev­eral fronts.

“To pro­vide more time to com­plete ac­tion on im­por­tant leg­isla­tive items and process nom­i­nees that have been stalled by a lack of co­op­er­a­tion from our friends across the aisle, the Se­nate will de­lay the start of the Au­gust re­cess un­til the third week of Au­gust,” McCon­nell said.

In ad­di­tion to health care and var­i­ous ap­point­ments, the Se­nate will de­vote time to pass­ing a de­fense au­tho­riza­tion bill “and other im­por­tant is­sues,” McCon­nell said. The Se­nate will now re­main at work through the week of Aug. 7.

It’s not un­com­mon for back­bench law­mak­ers to de­mand that a re­cess be

can­celed to play catch-up on un­fin­ished work.

Work on the Se­nate’s health bill re­mained un­cer­tain Tues­day, though McCon­nell told re­porters that he would re­lease a re­vised bill by Thurs­day morn­ing and that he hopes to re­ceive a Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice anal­y­sis of that bill by the be­gin­ning of next week so the cham­ber can vote on it soon.

In the face of unan­i­mous Demo­cratic op­po­si­tion, the health care bill will fail if just three of the 52 GOP sen­a­tors op­pose it. McCon­nell can­celed a vote last month on an ini­tial ver­sion of the leg­is­la­tion, and at least a dozen Repub­li­cans have said they op­pose the ini­tial pack­age or have dis­tanced them­selves from it.

“I have sym­pa­thy for the Repub­li­cans,” Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y, said af­ter McCon­nell an­nounced the post­pone­ment of the re­cess. “If I were them, I wouldn’t want to go home and face the vot­ers ei­ther, be­cause they’re not get­ting very good re­ac­tion when it comes to this [health care] bill.”

McCon­nell’s an­nounce­ment ap­peared to be de­signed to give Repub­li­cans time to move to other mat­ters, such as rais­ing the fed­eral debt ceil­ing, af­ter hold­ing a health care vote.

“The debt ceil­ing must be raised,” McCon­nell told re­porters.

Spokes­men for Arkansas’ two Repub­li­can sen­a­tors said the law­mak­ers sup­port McCon­nell’s de­ci­sion to de­lay the re­cess.

Sen. Tom Cot­ton “un­der­stands there’s im­por­tant work to be done, and he’ll stay in Washington as long as the ma­jor­ity leader says they need to,” spokesman Caro­line Rab­bitt said.

Sen. John Booz­man’s spokesman, Pa­trick Creamer, said Booz­man thinks the re­cess de­lay is “the right call.”

LOOK­ING FOR SUP­PORT

GOP lead­ers are still tweak­ing their health care plan to at­tract more votes, es­pe­cially from cen­trists.

McCon­nell is pre­pared to pre­serve for sev­eral years two of the Pa­tient Pro­tec­tion and Af­ford­able Care Act’s taxes on in­di­vid­u­als who earn more than $200,000 an­nu­ally and cou­ples who earn more than $250,000, ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple Repub­li­can law­mak­ers and aides briefed on the plan.

One of the taxes is a 3.8 per­cent tax on in­vest­ment in­come, and an­other is a 0.9 per­cent tax on wages and self-em­ploy­ment in­come.

The two tax in­creases would gen­er­ate nearly $231 bil­lion in rev­enue over a decade, ac­cord­ing to the Joint Com­mit­tee on Tax­a­tion. Leav­ing them in place could cre­ate a way to cover the costs of ex­panded Med­i­caid cov­er­age for the poor or other pro­grams de­manded by hold­out mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans.

“Ob­vi­ously that’s a di­rec­tion I think that a lot of our mem­bers want to move, to keep some of those in place and use the rev­enues to put into other places in the bill where it can make a dif­fer­ence,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Se­nate Repub­li­can, said Tues­day. The de­ci­sion to ex­plore changes was first re­ported by the Wall Street Jour­nal.

But the ide­o­log­i­cal dis­agree­ment over how to re­vise the 2010 health law raged on among Repub­li­cans.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, made the case to fel­low Repub­li­cans dur­ing their weekly lun­cheon that they should em­brace a rad­i­cal change for the Af­ford­able Care Act that would al­low com­pa­nies to of­fer min­i­mal­ist plans on the pri­vate in­sur­ance mar­ket that don’t meet cur­rent cov­er­age re­quire­ments.

The pre­sen­ta­tion high­lights the party’s strug­gle to de­vise a health care plan that can sat­isfy a broad enough range of law­mak­ers to pass it.

Cruz and other con­ser­va­tives are try­ing to steer the bill to the right even as GOP lead­ers are con­sid­er­ing changes — such as pre­serv­ing the tax on in­vest­ment in­come — aimed at en­list­ing the sup­port of cen­trists.

The Cruz pro­posal would let in­sur­ers of­fer plans that don’t meet cur­rent mar­ket re­quire­ments, such as pro­vid­ing ben­e­fits rang­ing from pre­ven­tive care to men­tal health and sub­stance abuse treat­ment. While that would lower pre­mi­ums for some Amer­i­cans, health ex­perts say it would also siphon off younger, health­ier con­sumers and could desta­bi­lize the mar­ket for more gen­er­ous plans.

Tues­day’s lunch gave Se­nate Repub­li­cans the first chance to con­vene as a group since they left for a week­long hol­i­day re­cess, where many con­stituents and in­dus­try groups crit­i­cized their lead­ers’ plan to re­write the health law passed un­der for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

In an in­ter­view with Rush Lim­baugh on Mon­day, Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence en­dorsed the Cruz amend­ment and the idea that law­mak­ers should re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act out­right if they can­not de­vise an im­me­di­ate sub­sti­tute. How­ever, Se­nate GOP lead­ers have been try­ing to nar­row the num­ber of op­tions from which their mem­bers can choose.

One per­son fa­mil­iar with the lead­er­ship’s strat­egy said Tues­day that McCon­nell pre­sented GOP sen­a­tors with a “bi­nary choice” in Tues­day’s lunch — be­tween get­ting a deal done among them­selves or hav­ing to work with Democrats, which they view as a less palat­able op­tion.

Se­nate lead­ers have se­ri­ous con­cerns that the Cruz amend­ment might vi­o­late a set of bud­get rules that the health care mea­sure must meet to ad­vance with 51 votes rather than the 60 votes needed for most other leg­is­la­tion. The over­all bill needs to save at least $ 133

bil­lion to com­ply with those rules.

Fur­ther un­der­lin­ing con­cerns over the vi­a­bil­ity of the bill, Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., said Tues­day that he plans to re­lease con­tours of an al­ter­na­tive health bill this week and that he is seek­ing the sup­port of gov­er­nors and sen­a­tors of both par­ties.

“I want to do the best I can, and I think the best we can is not on the ta­ble right now,” Gra­ham said.

A num­ber of mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans had re­coiled from the bill af­ter the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice es­ti­mated that it would mean 22 mil­lion fewer peo­ple would have in­sur­ance in a decade, and that pre­mi­ums and de­ductibles for mil­lions of low-in­come peo­ple would soar.

Gov. Asa Hutchin­son of Arkansas, which uses fed­eral funds pro­vided un­der the health law to ex­pand Med­i­caid cov­er­age for low-in­come res­i­dents, on Tues­day re­it­er­ated his stance that “the cur­rent Se­nate bill that’s in draft form is re­ally not go­ing to work over the long term and solve all the prob­lems that we need to have solved.”

He also ob­jected to the pro­posal that Congress sim­ply re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act and de­cide on a re­place­ment plan later.

“I’m not just for re­peal­ing it and then we’ll fig­ure out what to do down the road,” he said. He said such a move would be po­ten­tially desta­bi­liz­ing “to our med­i­cal com­mu­nity and to our cit­i­zens that rely upon some con­ti­nu­ity of care.”

But the state’s U. S. sen­a­tors are un­de­cided on the new health bill, their spokes­men said sep­a­rately, cit­ing on­go­ing dis­cus­sions.

DIFFERENT PLANS

Lead­ers were wait­ing Tues­day for the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice to pro­duce an anal­y­sis on the bud­getary and cov­er­age ef­fects of the Cruz amend­ment. Some aides said they worry that the amend­ment could be dev­as­tat­ing to the over­all sav­ings in the bill.

Dou­glas Holtz- Eakin, a for­mer Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice di­rec­tor, said it ap­pears that Cruz’s amend­ment would send all of the young, healthy peo­ple who are cheaper to cover into one in­sur­ance pool — and leave sicker, older peo­ple “in a glo­ri­fied high-risk pool.”

“It would be ex­pen­sive and pos­si­bly not par­tic­u­larly sta­ble,” Holtz- Eakin said in an in­ter­view. “If the pub­lic-pol­icy goal is to give peo­ple ac­cess to af­ford­able in­sur­ance op­tions, there’s a set of peo­ple who would just not have ac­cess to that.”

Holtz-Eakin said he would ex­pect in­sur­ers to flee from the ex­changes even faster than they are un­der cur­rent pol­icy, driv­ing up pre­mi­ums and forc­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to in­crease sub­si­dies to keep up with the sky­rock­et­ing rates.

The con­cern over how the change could cre­ate two sep­a­rate pools of con­sumers, pay­ing very different in­sur­ance rates, has prompted a group of more mod­er­ate rank- and- file sen­a­tors to pitch a plan that they say would curb the risk of that sort of seg­men­ta­tion.

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said he spoke pri­vately with McCon­nell and Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, on Mon­day night on the Se­nate floor.

Rounds said he wants to cre­ate a fixed ra­tio be­tween the least ex­pen­sive plan and the most ex­pen­sive plan that each com­pany of­fers in a given state, though he did not of­fer de­tails on how that goal would be achieved.

“Once you es­tab­lish that, based on an ac­tu­ar­ial de­ter­mi­na­tion, that ra­tio wouldn’t change,” Rounds said. In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Kelsey Snell, Sean Sul­li­van and Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post; by Andrew Taylor and Alan Fram of The Associated Press; by Laura Lit­van and Steven T. Den­nis of Bloomberg News; and by Andy Davis and Frank E. Lock­wood of the

AP/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (cen­ter) leaves a closed strat­egy ses­sion Tues­day on Capi­tol Hill with Sen. John Bar­rasso (left) of Wy­oming and Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Whip John Cornyn of Texas.

AP/JACQUELYN MARTIN

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pushed a plan to fel­low Repub­li­cans on Tues­day that would steer the health care law fur­ther right with a change that would al­low com­pa­nies to of­fer min­i­mal­ist plans on the pri­vate in­sur­ance mar­ket that don’t meet cur­rent cov­er­age re­quire­ments.

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