ACA won’t go away
The Colorado U.S. senator faces two-way pressure.
WASHINGTON» U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner is under siege.
For weeks, protesters have rallied outside his offices in Washington and Colorado with the demand that he oppose Republican efforts to undo the Affordable Care Act. Several were arrested this week on Capitol Hill, joining more than a dozen activists who met a similar fate in Colorado.
Meanwhile, Gardner has faced growing pressure from conservatives to make good on his campaign promise to repeal Obamacare, a goal Gardner has supported with dozens of symbolic votes since he joined Congress in 2011. That force will be on display this weekend when thousands of activists descend on Denver for the Western Conservative Summit.
Gardner will be there, too, though he said in a phone interview with The Denver Post that health care won’t be the main topic when he takes the stage Friday for a prime-time speech.
“What I usually do at this event is talk about those things that unite us as Americans,” he said.
It’s the latest example of the hunker-down strategy that Gardner has shown throughout the health care debate.
Since being named this spring to a 13-member Republican group assigned to tackle the issue, Gardner hasn’t spoken substantially about dueling plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act — not once revealing whether he would sup-
port any of the draft versions circulating on Capitol Hill.
His most animated moment, perhaps, came Tuesday when he vented about the reaction to reports that the Senate bill had stalled out.
“There are a lot of people out there today who seem to be spiking the football,” Gardner said. “Trying to celebrate a moment that — for now — seems to leave the Affordable Care Act in place.”
But Gardner soon could have no choice but to lower the drawbridge and make public his position.
Despite the looming possibility of failure, Republican leaders said they want to vote next week on some manner of health care legislation.
Currently, there are two main options.
One would be a version of the bill that Republicans have batted around for weeks and that analysts at the Congressional Budget Office estimated would grow the number of uninsured Americans by 22 million people over the next decade.
The other would be a repeal bill that would sweep away the Affordable Care Act without a replacement — similar to a 2015 measure that Gardner and nearly every other Republican senator supported. Neither is likely to pass. Even before U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was sidelined with brain cancer, Senate Republicans could lose the support of only two GOP lawmakers to pass a health care bill with a bare majority. That margin is even slimmer now, and enough Republican senators have voiced opposition to each plan that — barring a major change in policy or position — both will fail with Democrats united in opposition.
Gardner, for his part, said he remains undecided on both proposals, though he voiced a preference for legislation that did more than simply unwind the 2010 health care law.
“I would prefer a solution that would be a replacement for the failing Affordable Care Act,” Gardner said.
He would not say, however, whether he would vote for a straight repeal bill — even if it were a carbon copy of the 2015 legislation that he backed while President Barack Obama was in office with the power to veto it.
“I don’t think I’m going to speculate on that, because I don’t know that’s what would come up and I don’t want to say that I’m going to vote for this, that or the other before I see it and before I know what’s in it,” Gardner said.
But he echoed other Republican leader in arguing the Senate should vote no matter what, even in the face of likely defeat.
“I don’t see why anybody should be concerned about fighting for legislation that they believe will do better than what we have,” Gardner said. “If you look back at history and you see what (Democrat and former Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid did by trying to protect his members from tough votes and making decision on big is- sues, it did not work.”
Gardner’s opinion takes on added significance given his own political future and the role of getting his colleagues reelected as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
A no vote would draw condemnation from conservatives and potential primary challengers. A yes vote would further energize liberal and Democratic opposition and set the stage for future attack ads. Either option is made worse politically if the vote fails and the Republican-controlled Congress is unable to follow up with anything substantial.
“What’s going on now will probably affect Republican fortunes for the next 20 years,” said Dan Caplis, a talk show host with 710 KNUS who is scheduled to do his show Friday at the Western Conservative Summit. “Either the GOP gets it right (and) right now or it pays the price for decades.”
He blamed the current impasse on poor planning by Republican lawmakers in large part because GOP power brokers didn’t expect Donald Trump to capture the presidency.
“Where the GOP failed so miserably was to be prepared with a comprehensive plan,” said Caplis, who added that the Republicans had better recover quickly. “If the GOP can’t turn these lemons into lemonade, there is going to be a big price to be paid.”
While conservatives debate the best way forward inside the Colorado Convention Center, activists with the liberal group Indivisible Front Range Resistance plan to circle the gathering in five hearses as a way to highlight the number of Coloradans who stand to lose their insurance under the Senate Republican plans.
“Health care is a matter of life and death, and we want to make sure that message is out there,” said Katie Farnan, one of the organizers.
Under the Affordable Care Act, Colorado added more than 400,000 residents to the Medicaid rolls, a critical factor in driving down the number of Coloradans without health insurance from 15.8 percent in 2011 to 6.7 percent in 2015.
That’s helped to halve the cost of “uncompensated care” at Colorado hospitals — whose ERs must treat patients regardless of insurance status — from $2.3 billion in 2009 to $1.1 billion in 2015.
But Gardner and other Republicans said they worry about the future financial viability of Medicaid as well as how best to control premium costs on the individual insurance market, which are expected to see rates rise about 27 percent more on average in Colorado partly because of uncertainty over what Congress might do next.
“What I’m looking for, broadly speaking, (is) to make sure that we make Medicaid sustainable,” Gardner said. “I was very concerned that when the Medicaid expansion occurred that … states and the federal government would find it difficult to continue to fund.”
To do that, Gardner expressed general support for the idea of instituting a per-capita cap on Medicaid spending — a fixture of Senate Republican plans for health care.