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.
In case Senate Republicans’ efforts to pass a bill to both repeal and replace Obamacare didn’t look dire enough already, the Senate parliamentarian has decided two more portions of the bill can’t be included without a 60-vote threshold.
That’s the latest nail in the coffin for the Better Care Reconciliation Act, the main vehicle Senate Republicans had been using for a full repeal-and-replace plan.
According to Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee, the parliamentarian has struck down even larger portions of the bill than before. The latest parts of the bill subject to the so-called “Byrd Bath,” violating the Byrd rule that constrains what can be considered under reconciliation, are the GOP’s plan to allow insurers to charge older Americans five times more for health insurance than younger ones, and a provision allowing small businesses to create health associations that could be sold across state lines.
That’s on top of a whole host of other objections the parliamentarian has made that already were going to force a 60-vote majority to pass and kill the bill, as it currently doesn’t even have majority support in the Senate.
The most major ones are concessions to moderate Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) and conservative Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) that have yet to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office, and Senate GOP leaders have acknowledged would take 60 votes to pass.
Senate Republicans could theoretically overrule the parliamentarian — but it would gut an age-old tradition in the Senate and essentially eliminate the legislative filibuster. Enough Republicans are wary of doing so, even if they liked the bill, that this isn’t going to happen.
That means this bill — the one Republican leaders had put their backs into for months — is all but dead. Another provision for a full repeal of the bill with no replacement also doesn’t have majority support. That leaves only the “skinny” option that Republicans are still formulating that is rumored to repeal the individual and employer mandates (and essentially kick the bill to a conference committee with the assumption that this bill is unlikely to become law).
That option buys Republicans time. But it doesn’t offer them any clear path forward on how to find agreement on a bill that could eventually pass with just 50 votes in the Senate — especially as the parliamentarian has now struck down more portions of the bill they may have hoped to use in any future version of the legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) big plan to keep his Obamacare repeal efforts alive on Tuesday might come down to passing a narrowly tailored bill with provisions that are broadly popular with Republicans, letting them get to a conference committee with House Republicans without having to make any hard decisions.
The plan being discussed among senators would be to get through a motion to proceed to full debate on the House-passed American Health Care Act. Then after every amendment fails — both a straight repeal of the law and the Senate-crafted replacement plan that have failed to get 50 Republicans onboard as well as any Democrats offer to put GOP senators on the spot — the Senate would vote for a “skinny” plan to effectively repeal the employer and individual health care mandates, as well as the unpopular medical device tax, GOP aides tell TPM.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) hinted at that plan on Monday night, and Republican senators were discussing whether or not they could sign onto that plan as of Tuesday morning, just hours ahead of a crucial vote on a motion to proceed to debate on the legislation. If the motion to proceed fails, that could kill the bill once and for all.
“If we get anything out of the Senate, even if it’s narrow, you can then get into conference with the House,” Corker told reporters Monday evening.
And even some of the fiercest critics of earlier versions of the bill sounded ready to get on board with the more narrowly tailored provisions.
“If we cannot pass full, clean 2015 repeal, I’ve also been told we will vote on whatever version of CLEAN repeal we can pass,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) tweeted Tuesday morning. “Repealing mandates & taxes, without new spending and bailouts. This is the path I’ve been urging, and what I discussed with @realDonaldTrump. If this is indeed the plan, I will vote to proceed and I will vote for any all measures that are clean repeal.”
Paul went further during a talk with reporters early Tuesday afternoon, saying the skinny repeal is “what we’re talking about” — and arguing it include more than just repealing the mandates and medical device tax.
“There are ways to combine the 2015 repeal bill with the Senate leadership bill to a certain extent, and there are little items that can be paired together,” he told TPM during a scrum with reporters, saying that’s what senators planned to talk about at their policy luncheon ahead of the vote.
That’s far from a full repeal of the law, might not be workable policy in the real world, and doesn’t offer any clarity on what a final bill would look like. But it would buy Republican leadership time by getting into a full conference with the House and try to craft a repeal bill that could pass both chambers, taking the immediate pressure off of them to pass or fail on a bill on Tuesday.
It remains unclear whether that’s definitely the Republican plan — or that enough senators will go along to pass it — but it seems like the only one that might succeed at this point.
Though there’s broad consensus among Republican senators that the individual and employer mandates and medical device tax should be repealed, and the vote could put a few red-state Democrats on the spot, conservatives and moderates alike may balk at kicking the can further down the road and trusting that McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) can come to agreement on a plan that they’d want to vote for later on.
Hardline conservative Sen. Mike Lee’s (R-UT) office told TPM that he’s “undecided” on voting for such an an approach, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters Tuesday morning that he couldn’t support that plan.
“I don’t know if they’ve got 50 but I know that I’m not going to vote for something that’s a scaled down version, that’s a political punt,” he said, according to Politico.
But Paul’s support is big — and could signal other conservatives getting onboard.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) signaled Tuesday morning that he could support the so-called “skinny repeal.”
“I think it’s critical to honor our promise to repeal Obamacare,” Cruz said.
McConnell’s office didn’t deny that plan was in the mix, though they refused to offer any details.
“We haven’t made any announcements on amendments or predictions as to what amendments will be offered/succeed,” a McConnell spokesman said via email.
But Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the GOP’s No. 2 in the Senate, told reporters that the plan is “getting to conference.”
Democrats are looking to recapture their status as the party of the people after working-class voters abandoned them in droves in 2016 — and see an opening with Republicans’ push to cut Medicaid and Medicare.
Top Democrats unveiled their 2018 slogan Monday afternoon, promising a “better deal” for working families as they look to frame up a positive agenda that can woo back the blue-collar workers who swung to President Trump last fall.
“Average families feel they’re being pushed around by large economic forces and are losing that traditional American faith in the future,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said at a rally with other top congressional Democrats in rural Virginia. “We are here today to tell the people of Berryville and the working people of America: Someone has your back. American families deserve a better deal so this country works for everyone again.”
The slogan isn’t exactly as catchy as “Make America Great Again.” But it’s being billed as a back-to-party-roots effort by Democrats after many blue-collar workers abandoned them last fall, costing them the White House and Senate.
Hillary Clinton won voters from households making less than $50,000 annually by just 12 percentage points, down from the 22-point advantage President Obama had among that group in 2012, according to exit polls.
But midterm elections are almost always a referendum on the party in power. And Democrats hope that Republicans have undercut the populist tone that Trump effectively pushed by moving to slash future Medicaid spending in their Obamacare repeal, gut Medicare in their budget and potentially give huge tax breaks to the wealthy in their proposed tax reforms while failing to move on infrastructure investment. They want Republicans to own Trump’s personal unpopularity without any of the benefit of his populist rhetoric.
“The more that people see what the Republican agenda would actually do, the more vulnerable they become to questions that they’re betraying the middle class on the economy. And health care repeal is issue number one in making that case,” said Jesse Ferguson, who worked on House Democrats’ campaign efforts from 2010-2014 and on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a senior House Democrat who is close to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), told TPM that “working families don’t believe that we understand the nature of their lives the economic struggle that they’re engaged in.” She said Democrats made a big mistake by focusing too much on cultural and personality issues at the expense of pocketbook ones 2016, allowing Trump to “jump into the void” with a populist economic message.
“Now people are rethinking that,” she said, arguing the Obamacare repeal bill and House GOP leadership’s budget bill show they’re “hell-bent to hurt the American people.”
This approach isn’t exactly novel. Democrats have been beating up Republicans for wanting to gut social programs for decades. Their warnings about Speaker Paul Ryan’s Medicare cuts weren’t enough to help them overcome a difficult map to retake the House in 2012 — or avoid sweeping defeats in 2014. But Democrats say voters are taking those proposals a lot more seriously now that they could actually become law.
“People undersell the extent to which Republicans obfuscated what their true agenda was for the last eight years,” said Ferguson. “The problem is that snake oil doesn’t sell once people see the snake.”
Republicans scoff at another ham-handed slogan, pointing out that the policies in the new agenda were proposed by Hillary Clinton last year: Tax credits for apprenticeships, antitrust rules and regulations on prescription drug prices.
But they warn that their party needs to tread carefully on entitlement reforms, admitting they don’t always sit well with the blue-collar voters that fueled Trumpism and gave Republicans control of Washington.
“The key to all of this is you have to have a good messaging campaign, explain what you’re doing, and I’m not sure Republicans are really doing that,” John Feehery, a Republican strategist who worked for GOP hill leaders, told TPM.
Feehery said during the 2005 debate over Social Security privatization, his Republican father had a clear message to him: “If you fucking touch my Social Security, I’ll fucking kill you.”
Many voters agreed. That push was the beginning of the end for President George W. Bush’s approval ratings, and contributed to the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006.
It remains to be seen whether Democrats put their money where their mouths are in 2018.
While a number of red-state Democratic senators facing reelection are likely to campaign hard on pocketbook issues and protecting programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare — that’s how Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) got elected in the first place — House Democrats haven’t yet proven that they’re willing to invest big money inpoorer, less educated districts that have moved sharply away from them in the last decade.
House Democrats spent millions in an unsuccessful effort to win a well-heeled open seat in Georgia even while they invested almost nothing in even more Republican, more rural districts in Montana, South Carolina and Kansas where Democrats over-performed expectations.
Schumer declared the question of whether they’d invest in rural or urban areas a “false choice” during the Virginia press conference, and some Democratic strategists like Ferguson have argued that focusing on more educated, upscale districts that rejected Trump is at least as important as looking to recapture the working class.
But populist-minded Democrats say that the renewed focus on an economic message is a big improvement over where Democrats were six months ago — even if it’s just talking points.
“Even in the worst case scenario that I don’t buy that this is lip service, the fact that they’re laying out this agenda shows they’re realizing they have to tell people they’re for something,” said Pete D’Alessandro, who worked on Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid and is gearing up for a House bid against Rep. David Young (R-IA) in a district Obama won but swung hard for Trump last year. “Once you say it, you’ve opened the door. In a good way they’ve lost control of it now because people are going to be running on those issues.”
With Obamacare repeal teetering on collapse, tax reform looking like an even heavier lift and the Trump White House spinning further into chaos, Republicans are increasingly worried that they may squander unified control of government and fail to score any big legislative achievements.
“It’s upside down, what do you want me to say?” Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) told TPM when asked how things were going within his party.
“It’s been some of the most chaotic six, seven months I’ve ever spent here. I’ve been here 20 years, with a Democratic president just sworn in, a Republican president just sworn in, and this has been somewhat of a chaotic circus,” Jones continued. “It’s going to be very difficult to get any major legislation through Congress this year, and I think next year there’ll be even less of a chance.”
The libertarian-leaning Jones, a frequent critic of his party’s leaders, is no bellwether. But even top Republicans close to leadership who rarely sound their frustrations publicly aren’t happy about how things are going, and worry that if they don’t get on the same page soon they might miss the window of opportunity to pass any major legislation before scandal politics and the 2018 midterms put a halt to any chances of lawmaking on controversial issues.
“The bottom line is we have found a way to mire ourselves into our own frustrations and we’ve got to end that,” House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX) told TPM, saying internal tensions and distrust within the party are as bad as he’s seen in years, calling it “sobering” that Trump is already one-eighth through his term and warning the GOP needs to get moving — and fast.
“There’s a song, parts of a song: ‘Change your evil ways,’” he said. “We have to get it together. That’s our job.”
Republican lawmakers are getting tired of waiting and fooling around.
The Senate heads into the final week of July trying to resuscitate its attempts to repeal Obamacare, a prospect that looks bleaker by the day, while conservative groups warn of recriminations and party strategists worry about a depressed GOP base in 2018.
Congressional chaos has nothing on the White House, as shown by Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s Friday resignation and Trump’s broadsides against Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
As administration aides bicker and brawl, Hill Republicans complain that Trump isn’t getting them nominees fast enough to confirm and worry that with an unpredictable president mired in scandal they don’t have much time to get things done before a tough 2018 midterm environment overwhelms other efforts. And they say that the Russia investigation is proving more than a distraction for the White House — and could be an existential threat.
“Republicans have to understand that this Russia thing isn’t going to go away. I don’t think it’ll knock Trump out, but I don’t know everything there is to know,” said Republican strategist John Feehery. “If Trump gets impeached or resigns or has another kind of fuckup that’s going to ultimately drive this election.”
The possibility of impeachment is a long way away, but things are only heating up as the FBI’s probe expands into Trump’s business dealings and congressional committees threaten to haul up top Trump aides, including his children, for public grilling. The drip-drip of scandal could turn into a downpour washing out all other efforts as the investigations intensify.
Presidents usually have their biggest successesearly in their first terms — especially those with unified control of Congress. But first-year presidents also usually have approval ratings higher than 40 percent, the current average of recent polls. Republicans worry that the Trump administration’s internal problems and the Senate’s inability to agree on a compromise Obamacare repeal bill could sink their overall legislation.
“The reality is success begets success in legislating and politics, and it is much easier to get big things done when you’ve already proven and demonstrated the capacity to do it,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff and campaign manager for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
“It seems like people are not operating in a good faith effort to get something done here,” said one senior Republican with past Capitol Hill experience, warning that distrust was mounting between individual members and between Congress and a White House that has been scattershot in its demands and haphazard in its support, with its own competing power centers and a mounting crisis around the FBI’s investigation.
McConnell and Ryan spokesmen said passing major legislation is always a huge challenge — something rank-and-file members agreed with. They highlighted successes like confirming Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, repealing regulations and reforming the Veterans Administration, and argued that they’ll have more success when they can pivot from the deeply emotional issue of health care to tax reform, which they say is less personal and easier to do, and infrastructure investment.
“As Republicans, we are wired the same way on tax reform,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) told reporters on Friday, according to the Boston Globe. “Obviously, we’ve seen in the Senate there are a difference of opinions on how to do health care reform. We are so much more unified on tax reform, on what it looks like, and how to do it, and the need to do it.”
But members of his own caucus strongly disagree, warning things will only get worse.
“Nope. I think potentially it’s even harder,” Rep. Mario Diaz Balart (R-FL) told TPM when asked if he thought tax reform would be easier than health care to shepherd through Congress. “I believe it to be more difficult, equally if not more complex and with a lot more landmines than health care.”
“Anyone who thinks this is going to be a simple task hasn’t been around tax legislation,” said former Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-NY), who served both as chairman of House Republicans’ campaign committee and as a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee while in Congress. “The House, Senate and president need to put some points on the board ahead of the 2018 election. … The House could be in play if they’re not careful.”
House Republicans who took a tough vote to repeal Obamacare in May are steaming mad that the Senate has failed to follow suit— and worried it has left them in the lurch heading into tough midterm elections.
A number of GOP members from swing districts stuck their necks out on a bill they knew was politically toxic to move forward with their party’s long-promised efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act, in the hopes that the Senate could return a more palatable alternative. Following the chaotic collapse of parallel efforts in the Senate they face the worst of both worlds: backing unpopular legislation that will be weaponized against them in next year’s campaigns without the benefit of seeing it become law.
Even House Speaker Paul Ryan’s(R-WI) admonitions to his members during a closed-door Tuesday meeting not to rip into their Senate colleagues weren’t enough to keep them quiet.
“We agreed that there was not much use in criticizing the Senate while they were going through their process and I agree with that. I just find it interesting to note the number of geniuses serving in the United States Senate,” Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) told TPM, after a long pause and a deep breath, when asked how he was feeling Tuesday evening. “Politically it all still needs fixing whether the Senate does nothing, whether we walked the plank or whatever.”
After an extended diatribe about the process and all the “bovine scat flying around” on the policy debate, Amodei walked away — only to return toadmit he was “pissed” at how the Senate dropped the ball.
At least Amodei, who was an early critic of the House GOP bill before voting for the final version, heads home to a relatively safe district; President Trump carried it by double digits. Other Republicans who voted for Obamacare repeal aren’t so lucky.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) barely won reelection last fall in a district Trump lost by 8 points, and is a top Democratic target heading into 2018. He nevertheless voted for the bill after remaining silent on his position up until the vote itself. And he’s not pleased that Republican senators weren’t able to get their acts together.
“The Senate dropped the ball,” he said, sounding a bit exasperated. “They had almost a blank palette and they scribbled on it and came up with nothing. … Senator McConnell and [Senate Republicans], they failed to do their job.”
Issa refused to talk about the implications of his vote on his own reelection chances. But he already has two Democratic opponents, and has faced fierce protests in his district over the vote.
The GOP repeal effort is deeply unpopular. Just 24 percent of Americans said they wanted to see their repeal efforts succeed while 50 percent said they wanted to see Obamacare stand in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Sunday.
Democrats were feeling schadenfreude — especially those who went through a similar process eight years ago by taking tough votes to pass cap-and-trade climate change legislation that the Senate never seriously considered.
“There’s no question the Republicans used my [cap and trade] vote against me time and again in my 2010 reelection, in my 2014 run for governor,” former Rep. Mark Schauer (D-MI) told TPM, calling the Senate’s failure to act on the legislation “perhaps the biggest disappointment” of his time in Congress. Schauer lost his reelection bid to Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) in the 2010 tea party wave and his 2014 challenge to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R).
But Schauer pointed out that Democrats did get some big things done during his time in office that he said was worth the political price he paid — including Obamacare — while Republicans have almost nothing to show for their first six months of unified control of Washington. He was convinced his Republican former colleagues were frustrated about the outcome, and nervous about its political implications.
“This was what they campaigned on and they voted on it dozens of times and now they felt they were actually going to get it done. I’m sure they’re unhappy campers that this has melted down in the Senate,” he said. “They should be very worried politically.”
Former Rep. John Boccieri (D-OH) voted for the 2009 cap-and-trade bill even though he was from an industrial blue-collar district – and lost by a double-digit margin in 2010. He predicted House Republicans are “heading warp speed towards a stone wall” due to their Obamacare repeal vote and Trump’s unpopularity, much as he himself was in 2010. Boccieri tore in to the GOP’s legislative proposals as cruel and short-sighted, but the one area where he could agree with his Republican former colleagues was how maddening the Senate could be.
“It’s always disconcerting when the House acts and the Senate does very little but talk,” he said. “Sometimes it appears that senators just want to hold the national microphone and talk and not do much, and that’s really frustrating. In this case I’m ecstatic they didn’t move to remove millions of people from health insurance.”
With Obamacare repeal efforts appearing all but dead, House Republicans are left with little but their own fury toward their colleagues across Capitol Hill.
“Obviously having that [political] exposure is something you go into eyes wide open,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY), who hails from a district President Obama almost carried in 2012 but swung hard to Trump in 2016. “We have to do something to fix these failing Obamacare marketplaces for the people that are losing their insurance today. So I’ll deal with that. Obviously there’s political risk with that, and if it is for nothing that’s very frustrating.”