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.