What’s Going On Right Now Inside The Senate’s Health Care Debate

What’s Going On Right Now Inside The Senate’s Health Care Debate

The past week’s debate on health care has seen more twists and turns than a dime-store movie novel. “Repeal-and-replace” is dead—then alive again. President Trump calls for outright repeal, then letting the law fail, then “repeal-and-replace” again.

As Vince Lombardi might ask, “What the h— is going on out here???”

Never fear. Three simple facts will put the debate in context.

Leadership Is Buying Moderates for ‘Repeal-and-Replace’

Whether in the form of “candy,” “making it rain,” or old-fashioned carve-outs that help states with reluctant senators, Senate leaders are trying to figure out the amount and type of money and incentives that will win enough moderate votes to pass a “repeal-and-replace” bill. Details remain sketchy, but the broader outline is clear: senators don’t want to vote for provisions they approved 18 months ago—when they knew President Obama would veto a repeal measure. And Senate leadership hopes to “solve” this problem essentially by throwing money at it—through new funding for Medicaid expansion states, opioid funding, bailout funds for insurers, programmatic carve-outs for some states, or all of the above (likely all of the above).

Leadership Isn’t Serious about Repeal-Only

Some observers (not to mention some senators) are confused about whether the Senate will vote on a repeal-only measure, or a “repeal-and-replace” bill. But Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) explained leadership’s strategy to Bloomberg Wednesday: “There’s more optimism that we could vote on a repeal-and-replace bill, rather than just a repeal bill….But if there’s no agreement then we’ll still vote on the motion to proceed” to a repeal-only measure” (emphasis mine).

Translation: Senate leadership will only move to a vote on the 2015 repeal bill—which some conservative groups have argued for—if it knows it will fail. In fact, some observers have gone so far as to suggest Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Monday announcement that the Senate would vote on a repeal-only bill amounted to an attempt to bait-and-switch conservatives—convincing them to support starting debate on the bill by dangling repeal-only in front of them, only to pivot back to “repeal-and-replace” once the debate began.

Regardless of McConnell’s intentions earlier in the week, Cornyn’s comments make clear the extent to which Senate leaders take a repeal-only bill seriously: They don’t.

McCain May Make It Moot

It may sound impolitic or callous to translate a war hero’s struggle against cancer into crass political terms, but if the recent cancer diagnosis of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) means the senator will be unable to travel to Washington, Republican leaders’ desperate attempts to cobble together a legislative compromise may ultimately prove moot. At least two conservative senators oppose the current bill from the Right; adding more money to appease moderates won’t reduce those numbers, and may increase them. And at least two moderate senators oppose the current bill from the Left, hence the effort to increase funding.

If McCain is unable to vote on the legislation, Republican leaders will be able to withstand only one defection before putting the bill’s passage in jeopardy—yet at least two senators on either side of the Republican Conference oppose the current bill. That math just doesn’t add up, which means that barring some unforeseen development, the hue and cry of the past several days may ultimately amount to very little.

Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm based in Washington. He's on Twitter @chrisjacobshc.
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