GOP dealt stiff blow in bid to re­peal ‘Oba­macare’

The Maui News - - FRONT PAGE - By ERICA WERNER and The As­so­ci­ated Press

Collins and Murkowski joined McCain in vot­ing no

WASH­ING­TON — Deal­ing a se­ri­ous blow to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s agenda, the Se­nate early to­day re­jected a mea­sure to re­peal parts of for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s health care law af­ter a night of high sus­pense in the U.S. Capi­tol.

Un­able to pass even a so-called “skinny re­peal,” it was un­clear if Se­nate Repub­li­cans could ad­vance any health bill de­spite seven years of prom­ises to re­peal “Oba­macare.”

A key vote to de­feat the mea­sure was cast by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who re­turned to the Se­nate this week af­ter re­ceiv­ing a di­ag­no­sis of brain can­cer. In an im­pas­sioned speech the day he re­turned, McCain had called for bi­par­ti­san­ship on ma­jor is­sues of na­tional con­cern, and a re­turn to the “reg­u­lar order” of leg­is­lat­ing by com­mit­tee.

Three Repub­li­cans joined with all Democrats to re­ject the amend­ment, which would have re­pealed a man­date that most in­di­vid­u­als get health in­sur­ance and sus­pend a re­quire­ment that large com­pa­nies

pro­vide cov­er­age for their em­ploy­ees. It would have also de­layed a tax on med­i­cal de­vices and de­nied fund­ing to Planned Par­ent­hood for a year.

The fi­nal vote was 49-51. Repub­li­cans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Su­san Collins of Maine joined McCain in vot­ing no.

The amend­ment was a last re­sort for Se­nate Repub­li­cans to pass some­thing — any­thing — to trig­ger ne­go­ti­a­tions with the House.

“This is clearly a dis­ap­point­ing mo­ment,” said Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell, R-Ky. He put the health care bill on hold.

Buoyed by a sig­nal from House Speaker Paul Ryan, Mc­Connell had in­tro­duced a pared-down health care bill late Thurs­day that he hoped would keep alive Repub­li­can am­bi­tions to re­peal “Oba­macare.”

“It’s time to turn the page,” said Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles Schumer of New York. “We are not cel­e­brat­ing. We are re­lieved.”

Mc­Connell, R-Ky., had called his mea­sure the Health Care Free­dom Act. It was not in­tended to be­come law, but to open a path for a House-Se­nate con­fer­ence com­mit­tee to try to work out com­pre­hen­sive leg­is­la­tion Congress could pass and send to Trump.

The mea­sure would have re­pealed the un­pop­u­lar Af­ford­able Care Act man­date re­quir­ing most peo­ple to have health in­sur­ance or risk a fine from the IRS. A sim­i­lar re­quire­ment on larger em­ploy­ers would be sus­pended for eight years.

Ad­di­tion­ally it would have de­nied fund­ing to Planned Par­ent­hood for a year, and sus­pended for three years a tax on med­i­cal de­vice man­u­fac­tur­ers. States could seek waivers from con­sumer pro­tec­tions in the Obama-era law, and in­di­vid­u­als could in­crease the amount they con­trib­ute to tax-shel­tered health sav­ings ac­counts for med­i­cal ex­penses.

Ryan, R-Wis., seem­ingly opened a path for Mc­Connell ear­lier Thurs­day evening by sig­nal­ing a will­ing­ness to ne­go­ti­ate a more com­pre­hen­sive bill with the Se­nate. Some Repub­li­can sen­a­tors had been con­cerned that the House would sim­ply pass the “skinny bill” and send it to Trump. That would have sent a shock wave through health in­sur­ance mar­kets, spik­ing pre­mi­ums.

Ryan sent sen­a­tors a state­ment say­ing that if “mov­ing for­ward” re­quires talks with the Se­nate, the House would be “willing” to do so. But shortly af­ter­ward, his words re­ceived var­ied re­sponses from three GOP sen­a­tors who’d in­sisted on a clear com­mit­ment from Ryan. It was not im­me­di­ately clear whether the ma­neu­ver would suc­ceed.

“Not suf­fi­cient,” said McCain, who re­turned to the Capi­tol on Tues­day to pro­vide a piv­otal vote that al­lowed the Se­nate to be­gin de­bat­ing the health care bill, a paramount pri­or­ity for Trump and the GOP. The 80-year-old McCain had been home in Ari­zona try­ing to de­cide on treat­ment op­tions for brain can­cer.

Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, RS.C., ini­tially said “not yet” when asked if he was ready to vote for the scaled-back Se­nate bill. But later, he told re­porters that Ryan had as­sured him and others in a phone con­ver­sa­tion that the House would hold talks with the Se­nate.

“I feel com­fort­able per­son­ally. I know Paul; he’s a man of his word,” said Gra­ham.

“Let’s see how every­thing turns out here, guys,” Sen. Ron John­son, R-Wis., told re­porters.

The con­vo­luted de­vel­op­ments played out as a di­vided Se­nate de­bated leg­is­la­tion to re­peal and re­place the Oba­maera law. With Democrats unan­i­mously op­posed, the slen­der 52-48 GOP ma­jor­ity was di­vided among it­self over what it could agree to.

Af­ter a com­pre­hen­sive bill failed on the Se­nate floor, and a straight-up re­peal failed too, Mc­Connell and his top lieu­tenants turned to­ward a low­est­com­mon-de­nom­i­na­tor so­lu­tion known as a “skinny re­peal.”

It would have been the ticket to ne­go­ti­a­tions with the House, which passed its own leg­is­la­tion in May.

But that strat­egy caused con­ster­na­tion among GOP sen­a­tors af­ter ru­mors be­gan to surface that the House might just pass the “skinny bill,” call it a day and move on to other is­sues like tax re­form af­ter frit­ter­ing away the first six months of Trump’s pres­i­dency on un­suc­cess­ful ef­forts over health care.

Ryan re­sponded not long af­ter with a dis­cur­sive and far from de­fin­i­tive state­ment that blamed the Se­nate for be­ing un­able to pass any­thing, but said, “if mov­ing for­ward re­quires a con­fer­ence com­mit­tee, that is some­thing the House is willing to do.”

“The re­al­ity, how­ever, is that re­peal­ing and re­plac­ing Oba­macare still ul­ti­mately re­quires the Se­nate to pro­duce 51 votes for an ac­tual plan,” he said.

But lead­ers en­coun­tered prob­lems. The Se­nate par­lia­men­tar­ian ad­vised that the waiver lan­guage vi­o­lated cham­ber rules, mean­ing Democrats could block it.

The in­sur­ance com­pany lobby group, Amer­ica’s Health In­sur­ance Plans, wrote to Se­nate lead­ers Thurs­day say­ing that end­ing Obama’s re­quire­ment that peo­ple buy in­sur­ance with­out strength­en­ing in­sur­ance mar­kets would pro­duce “higher pre­mi­ums, fewer choices for con­sumers and fewer peo­ple cov­ered next year.”

And a bi­par­ti­san group of gover­nors in­clud­ing John Ka­sich of Ohio and Brian San­doval of Ne­vada also announced against it.

On their own, the changes in the skinny bill could roil in­sur­ance mar­kets. Yet the sce­nario at hand, with sen­a­tors try­ing to pass some­thing while hop­ing it does not clear the House or be­come law, was highly un­usual.

“We’re in the twi­light zone of leg­is­lat­ing,” said Demo­crat Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

AP photo

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein, D-Calif., (right) head to the Se­nate cham­ber on Capi­tol Hill in Wash­ing­ton on Thurs­day as the Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity in Congress re­mains stymied by its in­abil­ity to ful­fill their po­lit­i­cal promise to re­peal and re­place “Oba­macare.”

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