Dems Gear Up For Make-Or-Break Moment On Obamacare Repeal

Bill Clark/CQPHO

With Senate Republicans speeding towards a self-imposed June 30 deadline to vote on an Obamacare repeal, Democrats are ramping up their own efforts to put scrutiny on the incredibly secretive process the GOP is using to push through their bill.

Monday evening, Senate Dems ground routine Senate business to a near halt with procedural moves designed to slow the process, while engaging in a late night talk-a-thon on the floor.

“If Republicans are not going to allow debate on their bill on the floor or in committee, Democrats will make opportunities to debate,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

Throughout the nearly seven hours they devoted to objecting to the GOP’s intentions on health care, Democrats engaged in a number of mostly symbolic moves designed to troll Republicans for their lack of transparency around their Obamacare legislation. They offered motions to gum up plans for unrelated hearings and votes for as long as text of the Republican bill was unavailable to the public.

At one point, Schumer asked Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—who was on the floor for much of the the night to shoot down the Dem motions—whether the public would have more than 10 hours to read the GOP health care bill, and McConnell could not even guarantee that.

“I think we’ll have ample opportunity to read and amend the bill,” McConnell would only say.

Democrats’ desperation moves come as Senate GOP leaders have kept even many of their own rank-and-file in the dark about the legislation they’re writing to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Regardless, the Senate bill is expected to broadly follow the model put forward by the House legislation, the American Health Care Act, which the Congressional Budget Office said would result in 23 million fewer people with health coverage and $834 billion in cuts to Medicaid.

Without a bill to publicly debate for weeks or even months, Democrats have been noting which elements of the House bill have struck a nerve with their constituents and will be hammering those points home in floor speeches, hallway interviews and in hearings, aides say.

“Democrats will be focusing on some of the key pieces that are resonating with the American people as the most unjust,” a Democratic aide told TPM Monday. “Senate Republicans must confront the decisions they’re making and the impact that they’re going to have on the very real people they represent who would be hurt.”

Expect to hear Dems bash the massive cuts planned to Medicaid, a program that touches a wide swath of society, from substance abuse programs to nursing homes to Americans with special needs. They’ll also focus on the House bill’s projected increases in premiums for certain consumers, particularly older and lower income Americans, even as it cuts taxes for higher earners.

“We’re going to find ways to weigh in,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said Monday, adding that he’ll respond to any questions about the Russia probe by raising the issue of health care first.

“We’re all in on this. This is, in my view, the challenge of our time for people like older people, this is one of the greatest threats to the well-being of America’s seniors I’ve seen,” he said.

And the process by which Senate Republicans plan to push through the bill—without any public hearings and on an extremely fast-tracked timeline—is becoming a focus Democratic messaging as well.

“Bring us in,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said Monday. “Bring us in, let’s talk. Let’s fix it.”

The ongoing GOP negotiations have been held close to the vest, while health care competes with numerous other headlines coming out of Washington, from the investigation into potential obstruction of justice by President Trump, to the shooting at a congressional baseball team practice last week that left House Majority Whip Steve Scalise with life-threatening injuries.

Nonetheless, Democrats have been able to land a few clean hits on Republicans for their repeal push. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) confronted Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), a key Republican in the effort, about the secrecy of the Senate repeal process at an unrelated hearing, while Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has also been in the hot seat in questioning from Democrats.

Trump, meanwhile, handed Democrats an assist by reportedly calling the House bill “mean” in an health care meeting with Republican senators last week. Price was put in the uncomfortable position last week of being asked by Dems about Trump’s comments and whether the he agreed with them.

“It’s not a yes or no answer,” Price said at an appropriations subcommittee hearing in his attempt to dodge Dems’ grilling.

Left-leaning groups have launched a digital ad campaign against the half dozen or so moderate Republicans seen as swing votes on the legislation, particularly as it lurches towards the right. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has its own online ad campaign targeting the Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2018, while health care has been a major issue in the special election to replace Price, a former House member, where the Dem candidate has been neck and neck with the Republican in the traditionally GOP district.

At the Capitol, it’s likely that the parliamentary wrenches Democrats began throwing into the works Monday will continue through the week at various committee hearings, which Dems can hijack to talk about the GOP’s health care overhaul, or even delay entirely by employing obscure Senate procedures.

“We have got to use every rule that the Senate allows to make sure that people understand what this debate is all about,” Wyden said. “We have all these other topics that are competing and we’re going to make sure that this doesn’t get lost.”

The ramp-up in public pressure is intended to exacerbate the fractures already exposed in the GOP conference on health care policy, but it may be too little too late to stop momentum towards a Senate repeal vote by the July 4 recess, McConnell’s goal. Plans for a July 29 “day of action” by progressive groups, for instance, might come in time to make a difference. (If the Senate approves a bill, it will have to be reconciled with the House version, though that process can be expedited by simply forcing the House to vote on the Senate legislation).

Senate Democrats are taking GOP leaders at their word that they hope to finish a bill in time for a vote within the next two weeks, even as legislative text has yet to be shown to the Republican conference, let alone the public.

“When push comes to shove, McConnell isn’t going to let this bill see the light of day long enough for the public to process all the harmful aspects of this bill. So it’s incumbent on Democrats to expose what the end product is almost inevitably going to contain,” the Democratic aide said.
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