WASHINGTON — Republican senators are hunkering down in a last-ditch attempt to prevent their own divisions from pushing their health care bill to oblivion.
Yet after a face-to-face lecture from President Donald Trump, around two dozen of them staged a nearly three-hour bargaining session Wednesday night to resolve disputes over repealing and replacing President Barack Obama’s health care law. And no one offered specific examples of any progress.
“We still do have work to do to get to a vote of 50, but people are committed to continuing that work,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., a member of the GOP leadership who hosted the meeting in his office.
Reviving the legislation will require party leaders to win support from at least 50 of the 52 GOP senators, a threshold they’ve been short of for weeks. Aiming to finally resolve the issue, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he’ll force a vote on the legislation early next week.
Also attending Wednesday’s private meeting were health secretary Tom Price and Seema Verma, the Medicaid and Medicare administrator. It was interrupted by prayer after the lawmakers learned that their 80-year-old colleague, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had a cancerous brain tumor.
Earlier Wednesday at the White House, Trump told them they must not leave town for their August recess without sending him an “Obamacare” repeal bill to sign.
“I’m ready to act,” Trump said, foisting the responsibility on Republican lawmakers, not himself. During last year’s presidential campaign he had declared repeatedly it would be “so easy” to get rid of the Obama law.
Earlier in the week, the latest Senate GOP health care plan collapsed, leading Trump to call for simply letting Obama’s law fail.
McConnell indicated he was prepared to stick a fork in the Republican bill and move on to other issues including overhauling the tax code. But plunging into the issue after a period of lackadaisical involvement, Trump pressured McConnell to delay the key vote until next week, and he invited Republican senators to the White House for lunch.
There, with the cameras rolling in the State Dining Room, Trump spoke at length as he cajoled, scolded and issued veiled threats to his fellow Republicans, all aimed at wringing a health care bill out of a divided caucus that’s been unable to produce one so far.
“For seven years you promised the American people that you would repeal Obamacare. People are hurting. Inaction is not an option and frankly I don’t think we should leave town unless we have a health insurance plan,” he said.
Seated next to Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who is vulnerable in next year’s midterm elections, Trump remarked: “He wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?” as Heller gave a strained grin.
McConnell has failed repeatedly to come up with a bill that can satisfy both conservatives and moderates in his Republican conference. Two different versions of repeal-and-replace legislation fell short of votes before coming to the floor, pushing him to announce Monday night that he would retreat to a repeal-only bill that had passed Congress when Obama was in office.
But that bill, too, died a premature death as three GOP senators announced their opposition on Tuesday, one more than McConnell can lose in the closely divided Senate. Further complicating that approach, the Congressional Budget Office released an analysis Wednesday reaffirming its earlier findings that the repeal-only bill would mean 32 million additional uninsured people over a decade and average premiums doubling.
And a new AP-NORC poll found that Americans overwhelmingly want lawmakers of both parties to work out health care changes, with only 13 percent supporting Republican moves to repeal the Obama law absent a replacement.
At the White House lunch, the discussion was not simply about repealing “Obamacare” but also how to replace it as Republicans said that after seven years of promises, they could not let their efforts die without one last fight.
“Failure on this would be catastrophic, and we’re not going to fail,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
McConnell announced that the Senate would vote next week to open debate, and “I have every expectation that we will be able to get on the bill” — although no one seemed quite sure what bill it will be.
Trump’s sudden re-resolve to get “Obamacare” repeal-and-replace passed came after he’s been on all sides of the issue in a whiplash-inducing series of remarks over recent days and weeks, supporting repeal and replace, straight repeal, and finally doing nothing so “we’ll just let Obamacare fail,” as he declared on Tuesday.
Yet for all the determined rhetoric Wednesday, the basic divisions haven’t changed in the Senate, where conservatives like Rand Paul of Kentucky want legislation that fully repeals the Obama law while moderates like Susan Collins of Maine want something incompatible with that, a more generous bill that provides for Americans including those who gained Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act.