Tierney Sneed and Cameron Joseph contributed reporting.
Republican senators have a lot to say about the so-called “skinny repeal” bill they may pass late Thursday night, but almost no one argues the stripped-down, not-yet-fully-written legislation is good policy. The hope among GOP senators is that by passing it they can proceed to conference with the House, buying more time to hash out the Obamacare replacement they have promised for seven years.
In essence, Senate Republicans are voting for a bill many of them don’t want to see become law in the hope the House will save them from themselves. But they have no guarantee other than a few verbal “assurances” that the House won’t just pass skinny repeal and call it a day.
“It’s a means to end,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) told reporters. “The skinny bill, in my opinion, is almost like a motion to proceed. It’s a vehicle to keep going forward.”
“The substance of this is not what’s relevant,” added Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN). “This a pathway to conference. That’s the only purpose in this.”
Senators are voicing confidence that the House will proceed to conference—despite reports they are considering just passing the skinny bill into law and getting out of dodge. House leaders further stoked speculation of a swift vote by announcing Thursday that instead of leaving for the annual August recess at the end of this week: “All Members should remain flexible in their travel plans over the next few days.”
Senators have also discussed, over the past few days, fattening up the “skinny repeal” bill with provisions like defunding Planned Parenthood, a further sign that they are angling for House passage rather than going to conference.
On Thursday, just hours before a final vote, GOP leaders admitted they have no guarantees their shell of a bill won’t land on President Trump’s desk—other than a verbal promise from Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), the leader of the hardline conservative Freedom Caucus, that the bill as-is would be dead on arrival in the House.
“I saw what Mark Meadows said, that they want to get this to a conference,” Senate Whip Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told reporters Thursday. “And I know the Leader [McConnell] has been in communication with Speaker Ryan on that topic.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), a key swing vote from a Medicaid expansion state, confirmed that he would vote for skinny repeal solely based on the non-binding promise a conference would happen. “I would refer you to some of the comments made by members of the House themselves including Congressman Meadows,” he said.
Meadows told reporters earlier on Thursday that he had serious concerns about the content of the “skinny repeal” bill—which would scrap Obamacare’s individual mandate and do little else—and was committed to “working the language to come up with something different.”
But neither McConnell or Ryan have made a firm guarantee, and Cornyn confirmed Thursday that the Senate cannot demand or force the House to go to conference and has no power to stop them if they choose to simply pass the bill as-is. “For technical reasons, the request to go to conference has to originate with the House. But I have every expectation that we will,” he insisted.
A senior Democratic aide told TPM that these expectations and assurances are worthless.
“No matter what McConnell says—and what the Freedom Caucus is saying now—once a skinny bill leaves the Senate, the House can take it up and pass it,” the aide said. “There is nothing Senators who had hoped for another bite at the apple can do about it.”
Once the train has left the station, the aide added, more grim possibilities present themselves. “They could use this vehicle to bring full-blown Trumpcare back to life, with all of the Medicaid cuts and other policies that moderate Republicans in the Senate claim to oppose, and here too there is almost nothing they can do.”
This news came as a shock to some lawmakers.
“Say what?” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) said, clearly taken aback at the news the House could vote on the bill as early as Friday. “Come again?”
Asked if he thinks the bill could become law or is merely a vehicle to get to conference, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) frowned. “If you pass a bill,” he began, before trailing off. He then admitted, “I haven’t thought it through.”
Johnson and several other senators indicated to TPM that they do not want the bill they vote on this week to become law.
“The goal here is to go to conference and get a much better bill,” he said.
Corker agreed, adding that for conservatives who campaigned for seven years on repealing Obamacare “root and branch” and replacing it with a better system it would be an embarrassment to pass a bill neither repeals nor replaces.
“Do you really want to vote on something that doesn’t do a whole lot? After focusing on a full repeal and then going to almost nothing?” he asked. “I think people would have some concerns voting for that, unless they realize, and I think they do, that this a pathway to conference. That’s the only purpose in this.”
Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.