How Zombie Obamacare Repeal Could Linger On In Congress For A Long Time

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Cameron Joseph contributed reporting.

Congress may have failed spectacularly to meet Saturday’s deadline for passing a bill to repeal Obamacare with only 50 votes, but Republicans are promising to keep the zombie effort lurching along into 2018—allowing it to cling to future reconciliation bills that GOP leaders had wanted to use as a vehicle for tax cuts. 

Though the Senate budget unveiled Friday does not include provisions to allow for another Obamacare repeal vote, it would allow the Senate to continue to chip away at pieces of the law, such as the individual mandate.

Rank-and-file lawmakers are insisting, meanwhile, that more votes on full repeal are possible next year.

“The September 30th deadline is not a meaningful deadline. Budget reconciliation is available after September 30th,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) insisted, telling reporters last week that he and other Republicans will never stop trying to “keep the promise” of killing the Affordable Care Act.

“I think we should vote whenever we have 50 votes,” he said. “We don’t have them right now, it appears, but we should keep working and keep working until we reach consensus. Failure is not an option.”

Many Republicans expressed this same zeal, echoing President Trump’s questionable assertion that 50 senators would back a bill like the Graham-Cassidy block grant scheme if only they used a better process than the rush-job attempted in September.

But GOP leadership, perhaps knowing that there remains a fundamental divide over the substance of health care policy, is pleading with its members to leave the undead repeal effort in the ground and give their full attention to cutting taxes.

For days, they’ve been throwing cold water on the effort to drum up support for using the upcoming budget bill to pass both tax cuts and Obamacare, saying doing so would tank both goals.

“I personally think we need to take care of business on tax reform and not get distracted by other items, as tempting as that might be,” Senate Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) told reporters Friday. “The main thing I’m concerned about it is tax reform.”

Some members echoed leadership’s nervousness about imperiling the tax cut crusade by refusing to let Obamacare repeal stay dead.

“We couldn’t get health care done when all we were talking about for nine months was health care,” a usually mellow Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) fumed to TPM. “Tax is complicated. There are a lot of people who have disagreements.”

“That would be a pretty heavy lift [to do both],” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) added. “The more you complicate legislation, typically, the more difficult it is to pass.”

Practically, Republicans can’t keep Obamacare repeal alive—they have wasted months trying several permutations and haven’t been able to muster even the 50 votes needed under reconciliation, let alone the 60 needed to pass a bill under the Senate’s normal rules. But politically, they can’t completely let it go either. Though repeal remains unpopular with the vast majority of the electorate, the GOP’s donor base will continue to demand it. 

With no other major policy accomplishments to point to and with the success of tax reform in question, get ready for the repeal zombie to rear its head at least once a year for the foreseeable future.

“You can do it every year,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) emphasized last week, referring to future reconciliation bills. “You’ll have at least one shot every year that Republicans control the Senate.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.
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