With health-care bill loom­ing, sen­a­tors aren’t seek­ing spot­light

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - @PKCapi­tol PAUL KANE

Sen. Su­san Collins will cel­e­brate the Fourth of July within view of the Cana­dian border, at a re­mote north­east­ern Maine town’s an­nual pa­rade. Sen. Lisa Murkowski will ap­pear on the other end of the con­ti­nent in an old tim­ber town on an iso­lated Alaskan is­land.

Th­ese two Repub­li­can sen­a­tors, crit­i­cal swing votes in the de­bate over health-care leg­is­la­tion, are not ex­actly rush­ing into the public spot­light to en­gage their con­stituents on the con­tro­ver­sial plan and their own de­ci­sion-mak­ing about the pro­posal.

Then again, at least they have re­leased in­for­ma­tion about where they will be. That’s more than most Se­nate Repub­li­cans have done at the start of a 10-day break wrapped around the na­tion’s In­de­pen­dence Day cel­e­bra­tion. This cre­ates the be­lief among lib­eral ac­tivists that Repub­li­cans are try­ing to hide, which in turn primes ev­ery public mo­ment to be­come that much more con­fronta­tional.

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell (R-Ky.) wanted to avoid this by pass­ing the Bet­ter Care Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Act by Fri­day, be­liev­ing that Repub­li­can sen­a­tors might have faced some heat back home over the com­ing week — but then would have been able to fo­cus on many other is­sues for the rest of the sum­mer.

In­stead of reach­ing agree­ment, rank-and-file Repub­li­cans de­manded more time to re­view the pro­posal and to try to ne­go­ti­ate more com­pro­mises, with a fi­nal vote not likely un­til late July.

That time­line will run right up against the start of the tra­di­tional sum­mer break, with Congress sched­uled to leave Wash­ing­ton on July 28 and not re­turn un­til af­ter La­bor Day. This is ex­actly what Mc­Connell was try­ing to avoid, a sce­nario in which Repub­li­cans re­play the same po­lit­i­cal sum­mer that Democrats en­dured in 2009 as they de­layed and de­layed con­sid­er­a­tion of what even­tu­ally be­came the 2010 Af­ford­able Care Act.

The longer the is­sue re­mained in the public sphere, the more it con­sumed ev­ery in­ter­ac­tion Democrats had at home with their con­stituents. The month of rowdy town halls in Au­gust 2009 in par­tic­u­lar cre­ated ex­actly the op­tics Mc­Connell was try­ing to side­step this time around.

“It would have been bet­ter if we had been able to fin­ish it,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) lamented as he left the Se­nate on Thurs­day, pon­der­ing the like­li­hood that the rest of the sum­mer would fo­cus on this one po­lit­i­cally trou­bling is­sue. “I’m just say­ing, if I had my druthers, I wish we had gone ahead and got­ten the prod­uct agreed to.”

Sen. Bill Cas­sidy (R-La.), an­other hold­out on the leg­is­la­tion, got the first dose of what’s likely when sen­a­tors hold public events for the fore­see­able fu­ture. On Fri­day, in Ba­ton Rouge, Cas­sidy tried to dis­cuss flood re­lief — a crit­i­cal is­sue in his state — only to be in­ter­rupted with chants of “health care, health care.”

Democrats, who are uni­fied in their op­po­si­tion to the GOP ef­fort to re­peal Oba­macare, are watch­ing in amaze­ment as the Repub­li­cans han­dle the is­sue in the same po­lit­i­cal cir­cum­stances they faced eight years ago. They con­tend that the is­sue will only get worse for Repub­li­cans and could lead to more bad cov­er­age, just as Democrats faced in 2009.

“It could very well, I sure hope so,” said Rep. James E. Cly­burn (D-S.C.), who was the House ma­jor­ity whip in charge of round­ing up votes for the leg­is­la­tion back then.

Some Repub­li­cans dis­miss wor­ries about tim­ing. Rewrit­ing the laws gov­ern­ing health care, they say, will al­ways be a la­bo­ri­ous process be­cause the is­sue is so prom­i­nent in peo­ple’s lives.

Th­ese Repub­li­cans say they want their col­leagues to fo­cus less on the process and in­stead get the pol­icy right.

“No mat­ter what you do, you even­tu­ally go home and you have to ex­plain your vote,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chair­man of the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee, which wrote much of the House’s ver­sion of the bill. “Whether that’s this week, next week, the week af­ter or the Au­gust break.”

Walden spent the pre­vi­ous four years run­ning the House Repub­li­can cam­paign arm, which last year was still run­ning ads blast­ing Democrats for their sup­port of “Oba­macare” — more than six years af­ter the law passed on party-line votes.

Law­mak­ers who know the is­sue and can talk flu­ently about it will be best po­si­tioned to weather what is shap­ing up to be a stormy 2018 midterm elec­tion for Repub­li­cans. “It comes with the ter­ri­tory. You bet­ter know what you’re vot­ing for and why, and be able to go home and ex­plain it,” Walden said.

The big­gest di­vi­sion among Se­nate Repub­li­cans re­mains how to han­dle the ACA’s pro­vi­sion al­low­ing states to ex­pand Med­i­caid to pro­vide cov­er­age to mil­lions of ad­di­tional low-in­come fam­i­lies. The pro­vi­sion is fully paid with fed­eral funds now and is set to shift in a few years to re­quire states to pick up 10 per­cent of the tab.

Cas­sidy and Murkowski are among the Se­nate Repub­li­cans from states that ac­cepted that Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion and have deep con­cerns about Mc­Connell’s plan to force states into a near 50-50 split in fund­ing, as well as an­other con­ser­va­tive plan to im­pose strict spend­ing caps on the orig­i­nal en­ti­tle­ment pro­gram that pri­mar­ily serves low-in­come chil­dren, the dis­abled and the el­derly.

This bloc has left Mc­Connell far short of the min­i­mum 50 votes he needs (with Vice Pres­i­dent Pence ready to cast a tiebreak­ing vote). Mc­Connell will spend the next few weeks try­ing to forge con­sen­sus to pass the leg­is­la­tion. And that means Repub­li­cans have to con­tinue talk­ing about the is­sue — or hid­ing from their con­stituents.

On Tues­day, even in Wrangell, an is­land town with fewer than 2,500 res­i­dents in the Alaskan pan­han­dle, Murkowski will march in a pa­rade and al­most cer­tainly face ques­tions about how she will vote on health care.

And in East­port, pop­u­la­tion 1,300 — long con­sid­ered the east­ern­most city in the na­tion — res­i­dents of greater Moose Is­land are also likely to pep­per Collins with ques­tions.

And that’s why some Repub­li­cans fear that time will only hurt the leg­is­la­tion’s chances.

“Things start go­ing back­ward over the Fourth. I think a lot of peo­ple then start to think about, you know, it’s less likely to make a deal,” said Rep. Mark Mead­ows (R-N.C.), a con­ser­va­tive who led some of the House’s health-care ne­go­ti­a­tions in the spring. “Hav­ing ne­go­ti­ated all my life, if you get close, it’s bet­ter to stay and get it done.”

STACY KRANITZ FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Ba­ton Rouge res­i­dents at­tend a town hall meet­ing with Sen. Bill Cas­sidy (R-La.) about flood re­lief in the area. Dur­ing the meet­ing, many con­stituents raised con­cerns about the Se­nate’s health-care bill to re­peal and re­place the Af­ford­able Care Act.

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