GOP senators had hoped to finally get some clarity on the fate of their bill to overhaul Obamacare, after last week’s Independence Day recess deepened some lawmakers’ reservations about the proposal.
Instead, members arrived at a weekly lunch meeting to a chaotic scene where swarms of reporters peppered senators with questions about the news that President Donald Trump’s eldest son had agreed to meet with a Russian last year after being promised sensitive information that would “incriminate” Hillary Clinton.
Two hours later, Republicans still didn’t know how the health care bill would be revised — and GOP leaders insisted that there would be a procedural vote next week.
Adding confusion to the already muddled deliberations over the health care legislation, some senators said Tuesday afternoon that they were led to believe they might see two sets of draft bills and revised reports from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, while another veteran Republican declared that he was working on a separate proposal of his own.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, decided to add two more weeks until the traditional August recess starts, extending the time senators have to work on health care — but with no guarantee that it will amount to anything.
Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters that he and several other colleagues were in drafting a health care proposal that would likely be introduced as an amendment to the current bill. “I want to do the best I can and I think the best we can is not on the table right now,” the South Carolina Republican said.
While Graham himself would not share details of his plan, one senior Democratic aide said Graham had reached out to some Democrats on a potential bipartisan approach.
Asked if that was a bad sign for leadership’s efforts to shore up support for their bill, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate’s majority whip, acknowledged: “It means this is hard.”
While GOP leaders emphasized that decisions were still being made about what provisions will make it into a final bill, Cornyn said he expects $45 billion in extra funding to battle the opioid addiction epidemic — a key demand of Republicans Rob Portman of Ohio and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia — would make it into the bill.
He also said two Obamacare taxes on affluent Americans — one a Medicare payroll tax surcharge and the other on investments — that Republicans had initially wanted to repeal, will likely stay in place. Those funds would go to “the innovation and stabilization fund to try to give governors the ability to get premiums lower and deductibles lower,” he added.
Do they have the votes?
Even with these changes, Cornyn said, he was unsure whether leaders would get to 50 “yes” votes.
Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, said winning over rank-and-file members opposed to the bill remained a tough task.
“Every time you kind of move the dial in one direction, you maybe add some new members but lose a couple over here,” Thune said. “Right now we’re just trying to find the sweet spot.”
Others leaving the lunch were much more tight-lipped.
“I have no comment on anything,” said Sen. Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican. “You guys have a good day.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who has expressed serious concerns about the Senate health care bill, was asked whether any progress was made on issues important to her. She simply responded, “No.”
“You know we are going to be getting a new one,” the Alaska Republican said when pressed about ongoing problems with the legislation.
McConnell said his decision to delay the start of August’s recess by two weeks was in part to ensure that senators would have time to tackle other legislative priorities after concluding health care.
To that end, he is moving full steam ahead with a vote next week, with a draft bill being released on Thursday and an updated CBO score expected early next week.
Cruz amendment divides members
One major sticking point is a proposed amendment from conservative Sen. Ted Cruz.
The Texas Republican has been pushing a proposal to give insurers more opportunities to offer plans that don’t comply with Obamacare regulations. But it has drawn criticism from moderates in the conference who worry it could erode protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
In recent days, some of Cruz’s colleagues have sounded increasingly skeptical about whether the amendment could help create more support for the health care bill and if it would be included in the final bill at all.
“I think it picks up conservatives votes and loses other votes,” Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley had said Monday.
On Tuesday, Cornyn told reporters the proposal was still “in the mix” of revisions being discussed. Meanwhile, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker said he expects two draft bills — one with the Cruz amendment and one without — to be released on Thursday, while Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy said leadership suggested two CBO scores would be released early next week.
Russia news continues to overwhelm
What was supposed to be a clarifying day on health care instead turned into yet another day consumed by Russian meddling in the 2016 election, with mobs of reporters clamoring to know exactly what Republicans planned to do with the latest Donald Trump Jr. revelation.
“These revelations today rise to a level that likely complicates (McConnell’s) health care work given the fact that every one of his senators is going to be getting surrounded like this today,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut predicted to a large scrum of reporters in the Senate basement.
Corker, the chairman of the Senate’s foreign relations committee, argued he was doing his best to stay focused on health care and Russia sanctions legislation.
“It’s losing focus, and I’m focused on other things,” Corker said, noting that he was getting blood drawn when he learned about the bombshell news on CNN.
Graham insisted, however, that he was not fazed by the latest headline about the Trump campaign — and that it would not distract him from health care.
“I can do two things at once,” he said.