Senate leader says work to do, cuts recess by half
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.
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
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.
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.