McConnell prods senators on health care bill, amid dim odds
By Erica Werner and Alan Fram
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spurred Republican senators Thursday to resolve internal disputes that have pushed their marquee health care bill to the brink of oblivion. Yet the GOP’s reeling effort to dismantle much of President Barack Obama’s health care law may face even longer odds because of Sen. John McCain’s jarring diagnosis of brain cancer.
“Dealing with this issue is what’s right for the country,” McConnell, R-Ky., said. He added, “It was certainly never going to be easy, but we’ve come a long way and I look forward to continuing our work together to finally bring relief.”
Nursing a slender 52-48 majority, McConnell has been unable to muster the 50 votes he’d need to approve his party’s health care overhaul. Vice President Mike Pence would cast the tie-breaking vote.
But with McCain, R-Ariz., receiving treatment back home for an uncertain period of time, McConnell’s numerical advantage has dwindled. In McCain’s absence, if just two Republicans defect it would sink President Donald Trump’s and the GOP’s banner legislative priority, and more than that have said they are ready to do so.
Aiming to finally resolve the issue, McConnell has said he’ll force a vote on the legislation early next week.
After a face-to-face lecture from Trump, around two dozen of them staged a nearly three-hour bargaining session Wednesday night to resolve their disputes. When it was over, none 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.
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 McCain, 80, 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.
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.
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.
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas, Catherine Lucey, Stephen Ohlemacher, Richard Lardner, Andrew Taylor, Matthew Daly and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.