Why The Motion To Proceed On An Obamacare Bill Is A Sucker’s Bet

Why The Motion To Proceed On An Obamacare Bill Is A Sucker’s Bet

Without a clear vision of the final legislation and an agreement from 50 Republican senators to preserve that vision on the Senate floor, proceeding to the bill will result in a policy morass.
Christopher Jacobs
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In trying to win support for their Obamacare “repeal-and-replace” bill, Republican Senate leaders are making a process argument to their fellow senators: We know you don’t like the bill, but work to mend it, rather than ending the process. As Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, argued, “We gotta get on the bill.…If we don’t at least get on the bill, we’re never going to know.”

It’s a typical leadership argument: The promised land is only one bad vote away, not two bad votes, not ten bad votes, only one bad vote away. (Until the next bad vote crops up.) But to skeptics of the bill—whether moderate or conservative—that argument should sound like a sucker’s bet.

Without a clear vision of the final legislation and an agreement from 50 Republican senators to preserve that vision on the Senate floor regardless of the amendments offered—both things that Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) last week admitted Republicans do not have—proceeding to the bill will result in a policy morass that could make the confusing events of the past week look tame by comparison.

As things stand now, a successful motion to proceed will result in an amendment process under which various provisions of the bill get struck—due to guidance from the parliamentarian, dissension within the Republican conference, or both. Then, a last-minute substitute amendment from Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) will attempt to win over or buy off votes (or both), with the hope that he can dare enough Republicans not to kill the legislation just before the finish line. Here are the likely ways the bill could change—and not for the better.

The ‘Byrd Bath Bloodbath’

As I have previously written, the prior versions of the Senate bill had not gone through the “Byrd bath” testing which provisions comply with the Senate’s “Byrd rule” for budget reconciliation. Late last Friday, the Budget Committee minority staff released a list of provisions that could get stricken from the bill for not complying with the “Byrd rule,” including pro-life protections ensuring no taxpayer funding of abortion, or plans that cover abortion; funding for cost-sharing subsidies; a prohibition on Medicaid funding to certain entities, including Planned Parenthood; and a provision imposing waiting periods on individuals lacking continuous health coverage.

Multiple sources indicate that the list produced by Budget Committee Democrats comprised preliminary guidance on a prior version of the legislation. Therefore, that list should not be considered definitive—that all the enumerated provisions will get stricken.

Conversely, provisions not on the list released Friday could fail to pass Byrd muster, not least because the parliamentarian’s guidance can change. In 2015, a provision repealing Obamacare’s risk corridor program was stricken from that year’s reconciliation bill on the Senate floor, because the parliamentarian was persuaded by Democrats’ last-minute arguments.

Regardless of the specifics, the “Byrd bath” will doubtless make it more difficult for Republicans to present a coherent policy vision through budget reconciliation legislation, meaning the bill could change significantly from its introduced version on procedural grounds alone.

Death by Amendments

In calling for Republicans to vote to begin debate on the bill, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a close McConnell ally, has argued that senators will “have a virtually unlimited opportunity…on the floor to make amendments to the bill and try to improve it.”

Alexander’s key phrase is “try to,” because the numbers are strongly stacked against Republicans wishing to offer amendments. If three of 52 Senate Republicans—only 5.8 percent of the Republican conference—defect on an amendment vote, the amendment sponsor will have to rely on Democrats to approve the amendment. And why would Democrats vote for any amendment that might help Republicans pass an Obamacare “repeal” bill?

The most likely answer: They won’t. As a result, it appears more likely that the amendment process could see Republicans stripping out other Republicans’ amendments—from Cruz’ “consumer freedom” provision to the various “side deals” included in the bill—than inserting provisions into the bill to win support. After all, if a provision is so popular that it could attract the votes of 50 Senate Republicans, why didn’t McConnell include it in the base bill to begin with?

The ‘Wraparound Bait-and-Switch’

As Politico notes, the myriad amendment votes don’t represent the end of the process—they’re merely the beginning: “At some point, [Senator] McConnell will introduce a substitute that will represent the Senate’s draft bill. It may be different than what is introduced…and could be subject to amendment on the Senate floor next week. The bill, in other words, will be a work in progress until the final vote.”

That’s exactly what happened the first time the Senate considered Obamacare legislation under reconciliation, in 2015. At the end of the process, McConnell laid down a “wrap-around” amendment—essentially, a whole new version of the bill replacing the prior substitute. Reports suggest McConnell could well do the same thing this time round: introduce a new bill just prior to the vote on final passage, then dare recalcitrant Republicans to vote against it.

Conservatives in particular should fear the “wrap-around,” for the new “goodies” potentially lurking in it. With McConnell having roughly $200 billion in taxpayer funds to distribute in the form of “candy” to members, and staff brazenly telling reporters they plan on “making it rain” on moderates by including additional cash for home-state projects, the “wrap-around” could well include all sorts of new last-minute spending intended to buy votes, and not enough time to scrutinize its contents. (Will we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it?)

If this process works as outlined above, Alexander’s argument about amendments seems less an invitation to offer suggestions in an open process than a call for senators to go to McConnell’s office and work out a special deal behind closed doors in exchange for their vote.

Willing Disbelief

If the Senate votes to proceed to the bill and McConnell’s office turns into a trading floor, with staff “making it rain” taxpayer funds just like they promised, senators will claim themselves “Shocked—shocked!” that the process took an ugly turn.

They shouldn’t be. The signs are as plain as day. If senators have objections to the bill now, they should vote down the motion to proceed, for the bill—likely on substance, and certainly on process—isn’t going to get much better, and almost assuredly will get worse.

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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