Alice Ollstein contributed reporting.
Senate Republicans coming out of a GOP conference lunch—where it was announced that plans to vote on their Obamacare repeal legislation this week had pushed back until after the July 4 recess due to lack of support—weren’t exactly excited that the process was being dragged out at least a week or two longer, but were hopeful that the current impasse could be overcome with a little extra time for negotiations.
“It could be good and it could be bad,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) said, when asked what the delay meant for the fate of the bill.
At the lunch, where Republican senators were joined by top White House officials including Vice President Mike Pence, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) indicated that the conference would spend a few more days negotiating a potential deal, with the aim of voting soon after they return from their recess.
“We’ll see what, in the course of the next few days, we are able to come together around,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the No. 3 in the Senate GOP leadership, told reporters after the lunch.
“I would hope by the end of the week we would have reached basically a conclusion with regards to the substance and the policy of this, and then it’s just a function of working out the timing of when we get to and moved it across the floor,” he said.
After weeks of stressing that Republican were better off voting sooner than later, and that the whip count doesn’t get any easier as time goes on, GOP leadership appears to have at least caved to the concerns of some members that they weren’t given enough time to review the bill being negotiated. It was only unveiled a few days ago.
“Some of our members were concerned about the process and wanted more time, and I think this satisfies that concern,” Thune said.
Members pushed off the idea that they’d be able to vote on the bill this week, but it’s unclear how much substantive work is going to be done on its main framework in the next 72 hours. Four conservative senators had come out against the draft that was released last week, many complaining that it did not go far enough to dismantle the Affordable Care Act’s insurer mandates. Meanwhile, a handful of moderates appeared to have defected due to its stiff cuts to Medicaid.
Other Republicans stressed the need to get more information from the Congressional Budget Office, which released its analysis of the draft bill Monday afternoon, showing 22 million fewer Americans having insurance by 2026, compared to current law. CBO officials were at the lunch, Republicans said, and will continue providing feedback. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said he wanted an updated baseline score that measures what the current marketplaces look like that’s more recent than the March 2016 baseline used in Monday’s score.
“The CBO folks were challenged on a lot of their numbers, and they agreed to do some new findings,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) told reporters. “Their statistics were not up to date and they admitted that.”
In addition to Pence, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and press secretary Sean Spicer were also at the meeting.
Their message was “that they want the health care bill to pass,” Rubio said.
Senate Republicans were invited to a meeting with President Trump later Tuesday afternoon, scheduled before the delay on the vote was announced, and buses awaited them outside the Capitol to take them to the White House.
“Actually for the president to hear some of the dialogue that’s taking place in our meeting, that would be very insightful on his part, and I think actually, he would agree with many of the issues that are being raised,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said.
Trump taking on a bigger role in the next stage of the negotiations would come after weeks in which McConnell had largely been in charge of hammering out a health care deal among his caucus (though Pence has been a frequent attendee at the Senate GOP’s regular lunches).
When House Republicans were working through their effort to pass a repeal, the White House provoked frustration amongst top congressional staff for offering side deals to conservatives that would end up losing the votes of House centrists.
McConnell allies had already been caught by surprise when a Trump-aligned super PAC announced it would be targeting Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), who faces a tough reelection next year, for his announcement Friday that he was opposed to the current draft.
Just before the lunch, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who is at the far right of the Senate GOP caucus and whose vote was deemed un-gettable by many, had met with Trump and claimed on Twitter that Trump “is open to making bill better.”
“Is Senate leadership?” he asked.
The plate for Senate Republicans is already full when they return to Washington in July, as they seek to work on keeping the government funded, a potential debt ceiling increase and moving forward on tax reform.
According to Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), a more moderate member who has raised his own concerns about how Obamacare is repealed, McConnell showed neither optimism nor pessimism with the decision to delay the vote.
“He’s a poker player,” Cassidy said.