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Senate Likely to Miss It's Obamacare Repeal Deadline

Monday, June 19, 2017  
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Senate Republicans are getting dangerously close to missing their deadline to hold a Senate health care vote by month's end, potentially derailing fulfillment of their seven-year-old campaign promise to repeal Obamacare.


The Senate left Washington on Thursday with a seemingly insurmountable health care to-do list: When they return on Monday, Republicans will have just two weeks before the Fourth of July recess to overcome the remaining big divides on policy — including what year to roll back Medicaid expansion and how deeply to cut the program that covers health care for low-income people. They also must settle on how to bring down health insurance premiums and when to cut the taxes that paid for Obamacare — not to mention the vexing issue of whether to defund Planned Parenthood.

And they have to do all that and still keep at least 50 of the 52 Republican votes they need to pass it.

Republicans ran on a pledge to repeal Obamacare on "Day One" — but it has taken months to get this far. While the July deadline was self-imposed — and there's nothing unusual about Congress taking longer than expected to pass legislation — the target date is also strategic. Senate Republicans want to wrap up health care so they can move on to a host of other priorities their voters expect, like tax reform. Even though Republicans control the House, Senate and White House, there's been a paucity of legislative achievement so far in Donald Trump's presidency.

With that in mind, the Senate could still rush to get the bill passed in two weeks.

But it's unlikely they'll make it. Even if they resolve their biggest disagreements, they still have to write the rest of the bill, send the full text to the Congressional Budget Office, await the agency's score and keep 50 Republicans together through a lengthy series of procedural votes on legislation that would reshape one-sixth of the American economy — all with Democrats trying to slow them down every step of the way.

If the bill does slip into July, Republicans would then have to face another week-long recess in which opponents will have a chance to hold raucous town hall meetings. At that point, the GOP would run the risk of not getting a bill to Trump's desk before Congress leaves town for the whole month of August.

"You know, I thought that was a stretch anyway," Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) said of the late June deadline Republican leaders had set for themselves.

Rank-and-file Republican lawmakers — including Capito and Sens. Bill Cassidy and Rand Paul — left the latest working group meeting Thursday saying they have still not seen the full health bill. Even Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said at a hearing he hasn't seen Senate legislative text.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell "is trying to build consensus and he's trying to keep it moving. So that's why I think he's talked about [a June vote] but I don't think it's a hard and fast deadline," said Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND). "He's got to try to set some benchmarks to try to keep herding people."

Despite the slim prospects, Republican leaders are still trying to keep focused on a June vote. A source familiar with the discussions said McConnell is continuing to push for a quick resolution to the health debate that's already gone on for months, telling members it doesn't make sense to take more and more time when many Republicans are eager to push on to other priorities.

"Putting it off is not going to make it any easier," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. "A deadline is helpful because it tends to make people focus. We kind of operate on deadlines around here."

Administration officials — including Vice President Mike Pence and Seema Verma, who runs Medicare and Medicaid — have sat in on several Senate Republican meetings, but they've mostly left the bill in McConnell's hands. Trump hosted some key senators at a White House lunch this week to discuss the effort, but any impact he might have had was likely undercut after word got out that he called the House-passed bill "mean."

Republicans say the date now circled on the calendar is the monthlong August recess, when Washington usually hits reset on its legislative goals — and when town halls can also heat up again.

As August gets closer, the pressure on the House to approve the Senate's bill — instead of holding a potentially lengthy conference between the two chambers to negotiate their differences — will only get stronger.

"If we can move a bill through the Senate that demonstrates we can get 50 Republicans to vote for something — and that's probably what the [vote] will bare ... maybe the House will take up our bill and act on it. That's probably the best-case scenario," said Sen. John Thune (R-SD). "Because there is a sense of urgency and timing really matters, I think we have to move forward and if that means a conference, I think it's got to be a conference that gets to work pretty quickly."

Party leaders are discussing whether the House could take up the Senate bill, according to a person familiar with the discussions. That may depend on how closely the Senate bill reflects the House legislation.

Republicans widely acknowledge that if the Senate does approve a bill, it will almost certainly be with no more than 50 votes. It would have to get the support of at least one — more likely, two — of the three most conservative members: Paul and Sens. Mike Lee and Ted Cruz. Their support could go a long way in convincing House conservatives to support the Senate's legislation. A strong push from Trump could help push it over the finish line — at least that's the hope of Republicans in the upper chamber.

But before the GOP has to worry about conference, the Senate has to get a bill passed.

Portions of bill text have gone to CBO to get preliminary analysis on the cost and how it would affect coverage. It is a somewhat typical process for major legislation. But the analysis won't be final until CBO can determine how every portion of the whole bill interacts.

"It's an iterative process," of sending text to CBO, seeing results and sending new versions, Cornyn said.

Republicans are also contending with rapidly bubbling opposition from Democrats and Obamacare supporters who say the GOP is writing the bill in backrooms and not exposing it to the public. Supporters of the health care law argue the Republican bill is so destructive, the GOP doesn't want people to see it before they can pass it.

McConnell said this week that "nobody's hiding the ball."

"We'll let you see the bill when we finally release it," he said Tuesday.

Republican rank-and-file lawmakers say they don't know how long the bill will be made public before the vote is held. Many senators say in particular that they want to ensure the governors have enough time to analyze the impact on their states before the vote.

"I know that question is coming up, but I think there will be a draft that's out and people will have a chance to review it and debate it," a Republican senator said.

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