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Cameron Joseph

Cameron Joseph is Talking Points Memo's senior political correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He covers Capitol Hill, the White House and the permanent campaign. Previous publications include the New York Daily News, Mashable, The Hill and National Journal. He grew up near Chicago and is an irrationally passionate Cubs fan.

Articles by Cameron

The ongoing public feud between President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) threatens to spill over onto the 2018 elections, leaving Republicans with a series of nasty primaries that could hurt them in races across the country and damage their slim majority.

Trump is going full berserker on McConnell following the Kentucky Republican’s relatively muted Monday criticism that the president held “excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process” and was hurting Republicans by setting artificial deadlines. Trump’s response has been to lash out with attacks on McConnell’s capabilities as leader and hint that he might ask McConnell to step down if he doesn’t speed up his work.

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/895599179522650112

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/895686351529672704

After a tense Thursday morning phone call to McConnell and a series of furious tweets, Trump told reporters Thursday afternoon that it was “a disgrace” that McConnell had failed to push Obamacare repeal through the Senate. He warned if the Senate can’t pass that legislation, tax reform and infrastructure soon, reporters “can ask me that question” of whether he’d want the Senate majority leader to step down.

McConnell seems to be looking to deescalate the fight. He’s been radio silent since Monday, and his office directed TPM to the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which did not respond to calls and emails.

McConnell isn’t going anywhere anytime soon — he has strong support from his own conference. But the public spat with Trump threatens the size of his majority, complicating the elections of both incumbents and challengers as well as dividing an unhappy donor class. And the more they fight, the worse Republican strategists say things will go for the party next fall.

“Everybody knows we are going to have a tough cycle in the best of circumstances in 2018, the political winds are in your face when you’re the party in power,” said Republican strategist Rob Jesmer. “If [Trump] thinks the solution is to get his voters so mad that they stay home that could be a gigantic problem. Does he think this is going to be easier with oversight committees controlled by Democrats? That’d be an unmitigated disaster for us.”

When he worked at the NRSC in 2010 and 2012, Jesmer saw the party blow winnable races in a number of states because fatally flawed candidates won brutal primaries. While establishment outside groups and the NRSC’s decision to fight hard for its favorites in primaries have kept that from happening the last two election cycles, putting them in the majority, they’ve never faced a president of their own party undercutting their efforts.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to work together, including the president’s,” Jesmer said. “When he’s attacking members, all he’s doing is hurting himself in the long run. He’s not doing himself any favors at all.”

A friendly map likely insulates McConnell from a true threat to the majority — 10 Democrats in states Trump won face reelection, compared to only one Republican from a state he lost. But Democrats are starting to buzz that they might be able to fight the GOP to a draw, and even potentially gain a seat or two, though even the most optimistic say the majority is likely still out of reach.

Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Dean Heller (R-NV), by far the two most vulnerable Republicans facing reelection next fall, are both facing threats from the populist right by candidates who’ve slammed them for not showing enough loyalty to Trump. Flake has been particularly outspoken against Trump, penning a book and op-ed flaying the president, and Trump and his allies have responded with fury.

The president has privately threatened to spend $10 million to defeat Flake. While that’s likely bluster, White House aides have met with former state Treasurer Jeff DeWit and former state GOP Chairman Robert Graham, both top Trump surrogates, to discuss primary challenges. They’ve also gotten together with Flake’s fringe-favorite primary opponent, former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R). One of Trump’s top donors, billionaire Robert Mercer, just cut a $300,000 check to Ward’s super-PAC this week (he spent even more to help Ward in her failed effort to beat Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) last cycle).

Heller, on the other hand, has awkwardly danced all over the place on Trump and his top priorities, trying to please everyone and infuriating voters left and right in the process. After saying he wouldn’t back the Obamacare repeal bill crafted by McConnell and demanded by Trump, Heller voted to move forward on that legislation, irritating just about everyone in his home state. Earlier this week, businessman Danny Tarkanian, who has run (and lost) many races in the state before, launched a bid against Heller, slamming him for not carrying more of the president’s water.

Both senators are still favorites to win their primaries — and both the NRSC and the Senate Leadership Fund, a well-funded super-PAC run by former McConnell staffers, are ready to go to war for them. But divisive, nasty primaries could wound them both as they head into already-tough general elections. Trump allies say he’s at least as angry at the pair as the Democrats who have so far thwarted his legislative agenda.

“The president spotlighting Heller and Flake is an example of why he came here to Washington, D.C.: To disrupt the status quo. He sees a culture of empty promises,” a strategist close to the White House told TPM. “He gets frustrated when he sees Republicans who have benefited from these promises break those promises. … The president’s going to hold them accountable.”

It remains unclear whether this is a temporary tantrum from Trump, a la his primary attacks against Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, or whether he’ll follow through on his threats. Shortly before he went on his McConnell meltdown, Trump tweeted his support for Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) in his hard-fought primary, giving a big boost to McConnell’s preferred candidate against two challengers. Republicans warn that Roy Moore, one of his opponents, could actually put the seat at risk if he wins the primary.

But the mercurial and unpredictable president is hurting in a lot more ways than he’s helping, and GOP strategists are pulling their hair out.

“If you’re someone who’s trying to expand the majority, you do that by defeating Democrats, not Republicans. It’s a pretty simple concept,” griped one top Senate Republican strategist. “We were one vote short of repealing Obamacare in the Senate last month. The best way to increase the number of votes is to increase the number of seats.”

 

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Democrats are making an early push for older voters in their bid to take back the House, slamming congressional Republicans for voting for a plan to repeal Obamacare that included higher insurance premiums for older voters.

The House Majority PAC and Priorities USA, a pair of heavy-hitting Democratic outside groups, are launching a fleet of digital ads against 10 GOP congressmen who voted for the repeal bill and its “age tax that could devastate retirements.”

The message of the ads, first shared with TPM, is clearly aimed at older voters whose premiums could have spiked dramatically if congressional Republicans’ plans had become law. The House GOP plan would have loosened the current law’s limit on insurance companies only being able to charge older people three times what they charge younger people to a limit of five times as much.

House Majority PAC Executive Director Charlie Kelly said House Republicans “decided to throw their constituents under the bus by voting for a disastrous healthcare bill that imposes a devastating ‘Age Tax’ on older Americans,” while said Priorities USA Executive Director Patrick McHugh called it “simply unforgivable” that they backed a plan that does so while “cutting taxes for millionaires.”

Their target list is a mix of Republicans in Democratic-leaning districts, like Reps. David Valadao (R-CA) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), congressmen from older, heavily blue-collar areas like Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI), and some where both factors are at play, like Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), who represents one of the more senior-heavy areas in the country and one of the most Democratic-friendly. One fifth of her district’s constituents are over the age of 65, and Trump lost the district by 5 percentage points.

The ad buy is part of a six-figure effort from Democratic outside groups to make Republicans pay for their Obamacare repeal votes.

Democrats are hopeful that the GOP’s deeply unpopular bills have given them an opening with older and blue-collar voters, groups that have moved away from them in recent election cycles and helped deliver President Trump to the White House last election, much as their fight against President George W. Bush’s efforts to privatize Social Security paid big dividends the last time they retook the House in 2006.

A full list of the targets:

AZ-02 
Congresswoman Martha McSally

CA-10
Congressman Jeff Denham

CA-21
Congressman David Valadao

CA-45
Congresswoman Mimi Walters

CA-49
Congressman Darrell Issa

FL-25
Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart

MI-07
Congressman Tim Walberg

MI-08
Congressman Mike Bishop

MI-11
Congressman David Trott 

WI-07
Congressman Sean Duffy

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Jared Kushner owned a stake in his brother’s Obamacare-dependent health insurance company when it hired lobbyists to fight repeal of the law shortly before he divested from it earlier this year.

Kushner’s younger brother, Joshua Kushner, co-founded Oscar Health Insurance to capitalize on Obamacare’s individual insurance markets by offering a web-friendly insurance option aimed mostly at younger and urban consumers. The company is heavily dependent on Obamacare’s private insurance exchanges.

Joshua Kushner’s heavy involvement in the company has been widely reported. But his older brother’s partial ownership, through a stake in Joshua’s technology investment firm Thrive Capital, has been little noticed.

Jared Kushner did not list his holdings in Oscar Health Insurance on his personal financial disclosure form because he was not required to do so, as he included Thrive. But that company’s ownership, through a company called Mulberry Health, Inc., was highlighted by the White House’s own attorneys as a reason he needed to divest in Thrive around the time President Trump was sworn into the White House.

“One major holding of multiple Thrive Capital funds is Oscar Health Insurance. Mr. Kushner’s continuing interest in Oscar could require his recusal from a variety of particular matters that will have a direct and predictable effect on the health insurance industry,” White House Deputy Counsel Stefan Passantino wrote to the Office of Government Ethics in a letter explaining what Kushner would sell to avoid potential conflicts of interest and why. That letter is dated Jan. 25, 2017, less than a week after Trump’s inauguration.

Passantino’s letter was posted on the OGE’s website among documents that it has released pursuant to Freedom of Information Act requests.

It’s unclear exactly how much money Jared Kushner, who is Trump’s son-in-law and one of his closest advisers, had tied up in Oscar Health. His personal financial disclosure doesn’t break out the individual investments held by Thrive Capital, which Kushner had between $6 million and $11 million tied up in.

But while that appears to be far from Kushner’s largest venture, he wasn’t just a minor investor in the company, which in early 2016 received a $2.7 billion valuation.

A 2013 report to the New York State’s Department of Financial Services on Oscar’s corporate organization stated that the Kushner brothers were “deemed the ultimate controlling persons in Oscar’s holding company system because they are the only members of Thrive Partners III GP, LLC, which is the general partner in Thrive Capital Partners III, L.P.”

A flow chart of Oscar Insurance Corporation’s holding company system from the New York State Department of Financial Services’s 2013 report on the company’s corporate structure.

Three weeks before the White House wrote to the Office of Government Ethics outlining Kushner’s divestment plan, Oscar’s parent company hired lobbyists to prepare for the coming GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare. It is unclear if Jared Kushner had any involvement in the parent company’s hiring of the lobbyists during the Trump transition, though a White House source said that he had no involvement in Mulberry Health hiring lobbyists and no dealings with those lobbyists.

Oscar’s founders have been upfront about the importance of Obamacare to the company’s creation — and ongoing success.

“I don’t think we could do this without Obamacare,” Mario Schlosser, one of the company’s co-founders and one of Joshua Kushner’s college friends, told the Washington Post in 2013.

In the election’s wake, Schlosser and Kushner co-wrote a blog post on the company’s website in November 2016 arguing for the law’s importance and calling for it to be tweaked, not dismantled.

“While the ACA has significant flaws, we believe the majority of this pain [from rising insurance rates] is a result of the preexisting faults of our healthcare system,” the pair wrote, mentioning some of the law’s “serious shortcomings in design” but calling for relatively minor changes in the program rather than a dramatic overhaul.

Oscar’s parent company hired lobbyists to help make sure that vision was put to practice — three weeks before the White House officially announced Kushner’s plans to divest from the company. On Jan. 3, Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, Inc. filed a lobbying disclosure form announcing their hiring by Mulberry Health, Oscar’s parent company. As of March, Mulberry had paid the lobbying firm $60,000 for its work, according to lobbyist disclosure filings.

Calls and emails to Oscar Health Insurance, Thrive Capital Partners and Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas were not returned. The White House declined to respond on the record for this story.

Jared Kushner seems to harbor similar views as his brother about Obamacare repeal. Sources confirm to TPM multiple outlets‘ reports that he was deeply skeptical of congressional Republicans’ push for Obamacare repeal from the start and called the push for the repeal a mistake — criticism that led Trump at one point to blow up at Jared Kushner and say he fully understood his position, according to Politico.

Jared Kushner’s involvement in the internal Obamacare debate included an early spring meeting he attended with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), Trump, senior White House officials and House members, and Zeke Emanuel, the Democratic architect of Obamacare who Kushner played a role in bringing in to discuss the law with his father-in-law. A source in the room told TPM that Jared Kushner was vocally critical of the House Republicans’ plan for replacing the law during the meeting.

Capitol Hill sources tell TPM that Jared Kushner wasn’t intimately involved in the congressional push to repeal Obamacare. Ryan has talked to him multiple times since the election but only once about health care, according to a source familiar with the conversations. Jared Kushner was skiing with his family in Aspen when the House had to cancel its first vote on the Obamacare repeal bill due to lack of support. Senate Republicans said they’d had little contact with him.

But he didn’t completely step away from the issue, according to sources. He was at the table during a White House meeting between Trump and top Congressional Republicans to discuss health care in early June, when Trump joked on-camera that his son-in-law had “become much more famous than me.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BPlQuThjYwz/

A photo from Joshua Kushner’s Instagram account

Jared Kushner’s involvement on health care concerned some government ethics experts, who suggested it violated the spirit if not the letter of Trump’s own executive order barring people from working on issues “involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related” to former employers or former clients for two years. The OGE’s guidance on the matter says that broad topics like health care reform legislation don’t qualify because “it is not focused on the interests of specific persons, or a discrete and identifiable class of persons.” To further parse Trump’s order, Kushner may not fall under these circumstances since he was the owner and not an employee of the company.

“From a public interest perspective, the whole things reeks. From a black and white reading of the executive order it’s a little more gray. But it certainly goes against any claims to draining the swamp,” said Stephen Spaulding of the good government advocacy group Common Cause. “We shouldn’t be in a position where we have to be parsing the order, there should be a clear separation.”

While other insurers have scaled back on offerings on the individual health care exchange markets due to uncertainty around the law and Trump’s threats to stop making cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers, Oscar has actually increased its offerings this year.

Photo illustration of Jared Kushner, left, and Joshua Kushner by Christine Frapech/TPM). Photo credits: picture alliance / Kai-Uwe Wärner via AP Images, Chris Kleponis/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images. 

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From Laguna Beach, with love.

Russia’s favorite congressman is claiming that a months-old report proves “the so-called hacking of the Democratic National Committee before last year’s elections could not have been done by Russians, but was instead an inside job made to look like Moscow’s handiwork.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) famously said was one of “two people I think Putin pays” besides President Trump, has long been Russia’s leading defender in Congress. He’s now out touting a report from retired intelligence officials released back in January, claiming it shows that Russia couldn’t have been involved.

“The findings of these specialists destroy the credibility of the charges that Russia hacked the system, disclosed the emails, and thus greatly impacted the outcome of the last election,”Rohrabacher said in a press release from his congressional office. “These bogus charges have done great damage to our ability to work with Russia and have distracted the American people from the real threat of radical Islamic terrorism. This phony campaign has been used to disrupt the right of our new president to accomplish his goals and set the policies approved by the American voters.”

Rohrabacher said in his Thursday press release that he’d circulated the report by retired intelligence officials among his GOP colleagues to push back on the bipartisan consensus that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.

That report, however, came out months ago, before Trump was even inaugurated. And rather than offer any evidence that the entire U.S. intelligence community’s analysis that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election to help boost Trump over Hillary Clinton was wrong, it only questions those findings and called on Trump to get to the bottom of things.

Rohrabacher has long been a strident Russia defender — and the FBI reportedly warned him back in 2012 that Russian spies were trying to recruit him as an asset. The congressman brags that he once lost a drunken arm-wrestling match with now-Russian President Vladimir Putin back in the 1990s, and has defended many Russian actions viewed as dangerous by other politicians, including its invasion of Ukraine and meddling in Syria.

But what once seemed like oddball views have taken on a new light in the wake of the past election — and Rohrabacher’s once-safely Republican seat has moved rapidly away from his party. Trump lost Rohrabacher’s district by a narrow margin last year, and House Democrats have named him as a top target in the 2018 elections.

Democrats were quick to pounce on Rohrabacher’s latest bear-hug of Russia.

“Congressman Rohrabacher’s representation of Russia instead of his constituents has long been seen as a comical distraction by Republican leadership in Washington. But with the American intelligence community having already stated that Russia attempted to influence our election, and a mounting pile of evidence showing that he has done Vladimir Putin’s bidding in Washington, Congressman Rohrabacher’s peddling in conspiracies and lies to protect his Russian puppeteers is outrageous,” a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman said in a statement.

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Gen. John Kelly sailed through his Senate confirmation to head the Department of Homeland Security. President Trump’s next nominee isn’t likely to be so lucky.

Democrats raised few objections when Trump picked Kelly to head DHS at the beginning of his presidency, viewing him as the best they could hope to oversee the implementation of Trump’s controversial plans on undocumented immigrants and refugees and deciding to use their efforts to battle other more vulnerable cabinet picks.

Many knew Kelly from his time as a high-ranking marine, and hoped he would stand up to Trump on some of his most draconian and unrealistic demands. He cruised through his committee hearing and was confirmed by the full Senate on an 88-11 vote as Senate Democratic leaders left him off their list of Trump nominees to target for defeat.

Since then, however, Democrats have been sorely disappointed that Kelly hasn’t done more to fight Trump’s worse impulses or rein in his ICE agents as they dramatically ramped up deportations and split up families. With his exit to become Trump’s chief of staff, there are signs that whoever the president names is in for a battle.

The Senate Homeland Security Committee isn’t exactly set up to be a home for the anti-Trump resistance — four of the committee’s seven Democrats hail from states Trump won, and three of them face reelection next year. But some of those Democrats indicate they’re ready to show more backbone this time around.

“There’s going to be an opportunity to recap what they’ve done and why they’ve done it and see if we can make it so that families aren’t torn apart,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), who backed Kelly’s nomination in the committee and the full Senate, told TPM Monday evening. “It gives us an opportunity to make the process work better. We’ll see in the end, but it gives an opportunity to ask some important questions.”

While there have been reports that Kelly has stood up to the president on certain issues including the Muslim ban, many Democrats have been dismayed by his company man attitude and his fierce defense of ICE agents as they executed wholesale roundups of undocumented immigrants, split up families and dismissed normal protocols for prioritizing the deportation of violent criminals ahead of otherwise law-abiding border-crossers. Kelly fired back hard at any criticism of his agents or his department, telling lawmakers in public and private that if they didn’t like how his agents were doing their jobs they should change the law.

“A number of my colleagues have said to me they regretted their vote for him,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), one of the 11 Democrats who voted against Kelly, told TPM.

The big question is who Trump will nominate. Rumors have flown that Attorney General Jeff Sessions could be moved over to the department.

“We’ll see what happens with the attorney general, that’s certainly a matter of major interest right now. There’s been talk about him taking Homeland Security. That would be extremely contentious,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) said.

But that seems unlikely since Trump has even less trust in Sessions’ deputy than his former close ally turned punching bag, and the move would set up a huge fight over Sessions’ replacement, as well as an eventual battle to confirm Sessions himself (that would be delayed since Sessions has already been confirmed by the Senate fir his current post).

Democrats also say they know little about Elaine Duke, Kelly’s former deputy and now the acting head of the agency. Duke could be the pick, sidestepping a bigger confirmation fight since she’s already in charge. House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX), a Trump loyalist but one that is respected across the aisle, could also face less of a fight.

But controversial Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has long pined for the position and has been rumored to be in the mix as well. A Kobach nomination would likely spur a brutal confirmation fight focused on his long involvement in anti-immigration efforts (he wrote Arizona’s draconian immigration law and many other states’) as well as his crusade against voter fraud.

Democrats say that they’re bracing for a fight over the nomination, planning to use it to reevaluate how the department is being run and spotlight Trump’s anti-immigrant crusades, which many say have flown under the radar as other Trump scandals and the GOP’s Obamacare repeal fight have dominated the headlines.

“We should take a look at exactly what has happened as opposed to just the words people speak about their intentions. There was a lot of what happened in the confirmation hearings writ large that was about ‘who will speak truth to power’ and I think the time that has passed since that first wave of confirmations has given us the chance to really see whether people really speak truth to power and walk truth to power in terms of their actions,” said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), the lone Democrat to vote against Kelly’s confirmation on the committee.

“The solution here is not rounding people up who are undocumented in this country and deporting them,” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) said. “I’m looking for somebody who is fair and balanced … who understands that on the front lines the men and women in [ICE] have discretion and they need to be given guidance on how to use that discretion.”

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Tierney Sneed contributed reporting.

This story was updated at 9:34 a.m.

Still dazed from the spectacular collapse of their efforts to repeal Obamacare, Republicans are now confronted with the question of whether they’ll seek to help Americans in states where insurers are pulling out of the individual marketplaces and premiums are rising without trying to gut the program.

Until now, most Republicans have been happy to watch some state-level individual health insurance exchanges sputter along, using those struggles as their main talking point for how Obamacare is failing under its own weight as the Trump administration exacerbated some of the exchanges’ problems.

They assumed they’d be able to execute a broader policy change rather than worry about shoring up the markets. But after admitting defeat (at least for now) on a broad overhaul of the law, Republicans are beginning to come to grips with what to do going forward.

“We’ve got to do something. The repeal effort’s dead so I think the next logical thing is we have to try to reach out and figure out where we can make health care better,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) told TPM Friday, just hours after the Senate failed to pass a placeholder bill to keep Obamacare repeal efforts moving. “This is kind of all new territory for us, we’re getting our sea legs under us.”

Democrats are hopeful that their GOP brethren will be ready to move forward and craft a plan to stabilize the exchanges in the states that have been struggling.

“I think at the very beginning we should stabilize the system. We should make permanent a cost sharing, which keeps people’s premiums down and keeps the counties that are covered up,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in a press conference Friday morning, a few hours after the GOP bill failed on the Senate floor. “We should look at reinsurance.”

But it’s unclear if Republicans are ready to move on and help fix the very real problems of some state-based exchanges in places like Iowa and Missouri where parts of states are left with just one, or even zero, health care options.

President Trump, the man with by far the most power over that issue, has indicated he’s happy to let the exchanges continue to struggle — and threatened over the weekend to intentionally torpedo them.

Trump has said many things he’s failed to follow through on. But the Trump administration has sought to undercut the Affordable Care Act ever since he was sworn in, from kneecapping efforts to get more people enrolled in the programs (and consequently bring down costs) to signing a vague executive order on his first day in office implying the IRS might not enforce the individual mandate’s tax penalties to removing any references to the ACA on the Health and Human Services Department website, making it harder for people looking for information on how to get enrolled to find it.

Their biggest potential sabotage may still be to come — and will be the first major test for whether Republicans are ready to work in a bipartisan way to help Americans after their efforts collapsed, or whether they’ll look to hurt the markets for political reasons to try to force Democrats to the table, as Trump has threatened.

The administration faces a deadline next month to pay out subsidies to insurers known as “cost-sharing reductions,” which were the target of a 2014 GOP House lawsuit and Trump has threatened to halt in order to implode the individual market.

Past those basic payments, some state individual exchanges do need support — be it more federal subsidies or program tweaks — to get them functioning better. And while lawmakers in both parties aren’t crazy about the idea of just throwing more money at insurers to entice them back into those markets, most admit they need to do something going forward.

Republicans are split on whether to do either, though most believe that pulling the CSR payments would be policy malpractice, intentionally hurting Americans to make a political point, and carry big political risk.

“I have said since December that while the CSR payments are not constitutional they need to be made in a legal way so that the market does not collapse. I have not changed my mind on that. We have to put the consumer first,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR), whose committee is responsible for large chunks of healthcare policy, told TPM Friday morning. “If we don’t make the CSR payments, it’s the consumer that suffers.”

Still, as they woke up to the realization that they may be stuck with Obamacare in spite of holding unified control of Washington, plenty of Republicans weren’t feeling as charitable.

“This is not the day to talk to me about putting more money into a system that’s failing,” grumbled Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), Walden’s predecessor as Energy and Commerce Chairman. “We don’t want them to fail but everybody that’s been voting no needs to come up with a plan that doesn’t cost more money and lowers premiums. If they can do that then come see me, but don’t come to me with more federal subsidies. That dog doesn’t hunt.”

There are some positive signs of bipartisan efforts. The chairman and ranking member of the Senate committee tasked with dealing with the largest chunks of healthcare, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) have expressed interest in working in a more bipartisan way to handle legislation on the topic going forward.

“I voted to take the next step toward what I believed was our best opportunity to repeal and replace Obamacare. The Senate’s failure to do this leaves an urgent problem that I am committed to addressing: Tennessee’s state insurance commissioner says our individual insurance market is very near collapse,” Alexander said in a statement after the vote failed.

And a bipartisan group of House lawmakers are slotted to unveil a plan to help stabilize state health exchanges while shrinking the employer mandate on Monday.

But even those Republicans who say they want to work in good faith to improve things in the short term aren’t sure what can be accomplished, given a deep distrust that Democrats will work with them in good faith to make changes in spite of repeated overtures from across the aisle. And they hint they’d been so focused on repealing Obamacare, they weren’t prepared with plans if it stood.

“I haven’t really thought about this very much,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) told TPM Friday when asked what to do to stabilize the markets, before thinking out loud about his options. “I’m not for letting things fail but … throwing good money after bad indefinitely is not going to work either.”

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House Republicans are “frustrated” and “disappointed” that their Senate colleagues let their push to repeal Obamacare collapse early Friday morning — and after years of taking guff as the more dysfunctional chamber, they are more than happy to fire back.

As they came out of a Friday morning meeting where they’d expected to be discussing how to proceed with Obamacare repeal only to wake up and find the efforts had failed, congressmen took aim at an upper chamber many described as fickle, byzantine and incompetent.

“It gives you a sense of our frustration. Maybe now the rest of the American people get to see that even with as cantankerous and fractious [a conference] as we have in the House, we’re getting our work done. It’d be nice to actually have the Senate step up and do theirs,” Rep. Dave Schweikert (R-AZ) told TPM before laughing at a reference to an old Washington saw — and relaying his own version.

“You’ve all heard that joke: You’re a brand new member and the guy pops up next to you and says ’see across the hall, that’s the opposition. The other side of the capitol, that’s your enemy.’ Turns out, it could be true,” he said.

Schweikert is a hardline conservative who once mulled a primary challenge to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the man who dealt the death blow to the Senate bill early Friday morning. But even normally circumspect GOP House leaders wanted to make sure everyone knew who to blame.

“People are frustrated. We did our job and we’re not able to move forward with the Senate as a partner at this time,” House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR), a key player on health care, told reporters. “We needed some vehicle from them in order to get into conference and we did not get that despite trying to help them in every way possible.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) led the closed-door meeting by reciting lyrics to the old song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a ballad about a ship sinking just miles from shore — “Does any one know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours? The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay if they’d put fifteen more miles behind her.”

And the speaker was pointedly critical of the Senate in his public statement.

“We were sent to Washington to fulfill the pledges we made to our constituents. While the House delivered a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, unfortunately the Senate was unable to reach a consensus,” he said. “I am disappointed and frustrated, but we should not give up. I encourage the Senate to continue working toward a real solution that keeps our promise.”

Rank-and-file members were even more pissed off.

“They tried to do the most minuscule thing they could that was said to be relevant to [Obamacare] but it turned out they were way too ambitious,” Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) groused to TPM as he left the meeting. “I have never, ever seen a situation where the senators were calling to say ‘look, we can only pass this bill if you promise us you won’t pass it.’ I’ve never, ever heard that.”

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This post was last updated at 6:28 p.m. EST.

Tierney Sneed contributed reporting.

A quartet of crucial Senate Republicans said they won’t back Senate leadership’s “skinny repeal” of Obamacare on Thursday unless they get a guarantee the House won’t just pass it into law, enough to kill the effort to repeal the law.

“There’s increasing concern on my part and others that what the house will do is take whatever we pass… go directly to the house floor, vote on it and that goes to the president’s desk,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), flanked by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA).

“The skinny bill as policy is disaster. The skinny bill as replacement for Obamacare is a fraud,” Graham continued, referring to GOP leaders’ plan to pass a bill that eliminates the individual and employer mandates of Obamacare while touching almost no other parts of the law. “I need assurances from the speaker of the House and his team. … If I don’t get those assurances I’m a no.”

McCain concurred, saying “I am voting no” unless he has a guarantee of support.

Johnson made similar comments, saying “Just give us the assurance that whatever we pass tonight will go to conference,” while Cassidy was critical though less specific about his plan.

Afterwards, Johnson told reporters he’d been texting with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and that Ryan knew they’d planned the press conference.

The senators hold plenty of leverage — if they vote no it dooms the bill, as GOP leadership has just two votes to spare heading into a late night vote-a-rama that will determine whether their partisan Obamacare repeal efforts keep going or fall apart.

But that guarantee isn’t something House leaders have yet been willing to promise — and it’s not exactly clear how they could make it ironclad since once the Senate passes a bill, the House can just send it along.

House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) told TPM shortly before the conference that the plan was to “gather with our members” and figure out next steps, repeatedly refusing to rule out passing whatever the Senate passes if they find it palatable enough.

“We’ll wait to see what’s coming out of the Senate and make a determination on conference or accepting it. So not yet known, really depends on what the Senate sends out,” he said.

Other senior Republicans were more explicit.

“They can demand anything they want but I’m not giving any commitment to any senator,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) told reporters less than an hour before Graham’s comments, shortly after GOP leaders told members to keep their travel plans loose in case there are weekend votes.

“If we’re voting on Saturday, it would be the skinny bill,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY), a close ally of President Trump who helped negotiate a part of the original House bill that won over some moderate New York Republicans.

And a spokeswoman for Ryan emailed just as the press conference was beginning that “Conference Committee is one option under consideration.”

Graham’s demands were a lot more specific than GOP leaders, who have put their good faith in House leaders to go to a conference committee where both sides would negotiate a plan both sides could pass.

“We’re going to get this bill out, and get it to them, and trust them to do the right thing,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) said Thursday afternoon.

But if conference fails and the Senate bill is the only option besides failure, it’s still easy to see how the House would decide to try to push through the Senate’s legislation.

Even Graham was unclear when asked what type of ironclad promise Ryan and company could make him to relieve his concerns enough.

“We don’t have it,” he said. “It’s like pornography: You know it when you see it.”

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Once more unto the breach.

The Senate returned to session Thursday at 10 a.m. ET with 10 hours of debate left on the official clock before the start of an expected hours-long “vote-a-rama” on amendments. That is expected to end with a crucial vote to repeal Obamacare late Thursday night or, more likely, past midnight on Friday morning. But what exactly that vote will be on—and what comes in between now and then—are mysteries to most senators.

The only vote that was officially on the schedule as of Thursday morning was a GOP amendment put up by Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) to try to force Democrats on the record as to whether they support a single-payer plan for healthcare.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the leading champion of single payer, has already said he’ll vote against it, and most Democrats are expected to follow suit when the vote comes to the floor around 2:15 p.m. ET.

Past that, it’s anyone’s guess how the Senate’s day rumbles along ahead of a dramatic vote for the GOP to keep alive their efforts to repeal Obamacare—most likely using a “skinny repeal” option that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) still hasn’t shared with lawmakers.

“Senators will have the opportunity to consider many, many more amendments here tonight,” McConnell said Thursday morning as the Senate came back into session. “We know it is likely to be a very long night.”

According to Reuters, Republicans’ current plan is to actually write that skinny plan early Thursday afternoon during their weekly policy luncheon beginning at 12:30 p.m. ET. Rumor has it that moderates from states that expanded Medicaid are pushing for money for opioid treatment programs.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) declared Wednesday evening that Democrats wouldn’t offer any amendments until McConnell officially unveiled that plan, which is rumored to contain repeals of the employer and individual mandates as well as the medical device tax, but could contain other options. That means both sides may play a waiting game until Republicans drop their bill — before Democrats unload dozens, and potentially hundreds, of amendments.

It’s still unclear if McConnell actually has the votes to pass his “skinny” plan. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) voiced skepticism about it on Wednesday and moderates like Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME) have said they want to see what the bill actually is before voting on it.

But most Republicans seem reluctantly on board with the plan to keep Obamacare repeal efforts alive. Lawmakers in both parties expect that McConnell has the votes to squeeze the bill through, allowing it to get to a conference with House leaders where they can try to achieve what McConnell failed to do on his own and come up with a plan that can pass both chambers.

With uncertainty about whether just a few amendments will be offered or a bucketload of them, anyone outside McConnell’s office is purely guessing at what the day might hold.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) told TPM Thursday morning, with a note of uncertainty and a quizzical half-shrug, that he thought votes were expected “late afternoon.”

McConnell’s office said time was likely to expire “this afternoon/early evening,” and promised other amendments after Daines’s, although an aide declined to say what those would be.

“I don’t know if Dems will continue to miss opportunities to have amendments,” said a McConnell aide.

Democrats are even more in the dark.

“We have ten hours of debate left, no sense of anything after 2:15,” one Democratic leadership aide told TPM.

Stay tuned for what could be a wild day, and night.

This story was updated at 2:08 p.m. to more accurately reflect the process of the vote-a-rama.

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Senate Republicans predict their “skinny repeal” of Obamacare will never become law if they pass it through their chamber. But their colleagues in the House — and their own leaders — aren’t making any promises.

Rank-and-file Republican senators are girding themselves to vote for a trimmed-down repeal of Obamacare that pulls out the unpopular individual and employer mandates without touching much of the rest of the program, convinced that the House wouldn’t just take their exact bill and send it along to President Trump to sign.

Their argument is the bill buys them time and acts as an empty vessel for congressional leaders to pour the magic potion of a passable replacement into during a conference between House and Senate leaders. They say the worst-case scenario at that point is that no bill materializes and the effort collapses later instead of this week.

The so-called skinny provision is not a resolution to this problem. It only takes us to the next step, where hopefully we can find it,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) told reporters Wednesday.

 

“To think it’s a leap of faith, obviously you have to have 51 votes at the end of [a conference committee] as well,” Sen James Lankford (R-OK) told TPM. “The House is not going to pass it.”

But that’s not a given. There’s no reason to think a conference committee will have any better luck finding a bill that 50 GOP senators and 218 GOP congressmen can support. At that point, there’s a real possibility that whatever the Senate passes would be passed into law by desperate House Republicans before the Senate ever gets to touch it again.

If the Obamacare repeal debate has proven anything, it’s that many GOP lawmakers are a lot more interested in what’s politically possible than what’s good policy. It’s easy to see how passing something, anything, might become the mantra if conference negotiations fall apart, President Trump demands a win while congressional leaders make the “but you promised” argument to reluctant lawmakers. It’s what they’ve been doing from the start.

Senate leaders are already hinting at that prospect. Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) floated the idea of Republicans just passing the skinny repeal into law and calling it a day Wednesday afternoon, telling reporters, “The House could take up the Senate bill and pass that or they could amend it and send it back.”

“I would vote for a skinny plan to get into conference to come up with a replacement. If I thought that was all the conference was going to do I wouldn’t vote for it,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told TPM during a Wednesday afternoon scrum.

When told of Cornyn’s comment later in the evening, Graham responded: “Well then I won’t vote for that. I think that would be a joke, that would be a punt.”

But while House Republicans aren’t exactly thrilled with the Senate’s proposal, some say that if they’re faced with a choice between making no changes to Obamacare and repealing the mandates they’ll take the latter.

It would be better than nothing, no doubt,” Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) told TPM.

Collins, a close ally of President Trump and a member of the moderate Tuesday Group who helped negotiate a side deal that got some key New York Republicans onboard with the House’s bill, said he wanted to see a much more comprehensive repeal. But he predicted that if the “skinny repeal” is the only option, it would have a real chance at passing the House.

“Everyone agrees the employer mandate, employee mandate and medical device tax all have got to go. So there’s no disagreement. There would be significant disappointment if that’s all that was but if that’s literally all that was and never anything else, it’s better than nothing,” he said.

Some hardline conservatives sounded open to that possibility as well.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) said he was “undecided” about what he’d do if he was left with a choice between nothing and a partial repeal that only targeted the individual markets.

“It’s hard to be thrilled about an action like that. On the other hand, to repeal the individual and employer mandate is a big deal, and the medical device tax,” he told TPM.

Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA), a member of the uncompromisingly conservative House Freedom Caucus, sounded a similar note.

“Is it better than doing nothing and keeping Obamacare, which is failing? I don’t know. I have to look at that,” he told TPM. “Intuitively, I would say doing something is better than nothing, but that may not be the case … the whole thing could collapse just like Obamacare.”

House GOP leadership aides refused to speculate about the prospect of taking a vote on the skinny legislation, pointing out that they — and everyone else — had no idea what Senate Republicans would actually vote on, and accurately pointing out that even if they do agree to a conference committee it’s far from clear what might come out of it.

Plenty of other House members have been critical of the rumored skinny repeal plan as well.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said there was “zero” chance of the bill passing.

Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ), the Tuesday Group member who negotiated the amendment with Meadows which allowed the original repeal bill to pass the House, told TPM that rolling back the mandates without a wider framework change could “hasten the demise” of the individual markets by spiking insurance rates “without any responsible replacement.”

“Just dismantling a couple of pieces of it is a good way to make it worse,” he said.

Experts agree with MacArthur. The CBO has found that average insurance premiums would spike by 20% over current rates and 16 million fewer people would have insurance if the mandates are repealed. On top of that, Republicans privately worry that passing the bill would be politically toxic because they’d hurt the individual markets — and take the blame for all of the markets’ problems, much as Democrats have ever since Obamacare passed.

Some senators argue that even a skinny repeal is better than none if that’s what they get stuck with.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) said the point was to get to conference, but he argued it could help spur future change.

“If that were to occur, then you would have a skinny and a two-year delay, at which time for now everything stays the same and we have chaos in the Obamacare markets for the next two years because there literally is going to be a 20 percent [premium] increase in January,” he said.

But their House brethren caution that the senators who are so cocksure that they’ll get a bill back out of conference report back for a final veto should look a bit more carefully.

“They’re going with Kierkegaard. It’s a giant leap of faith,” said Brat.

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