Senate GOP on defensive over all-male health care group

Senate Republicans pushed back Tuesday amid lashing Democratic criticism of their move to leave women out of their health care working group.

Senate GOP leaders have faced an onslaught of negative headlines since they revealed the roster of 13 members — all men — tapped to draft legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare. As Democrats blasted the seeming freeze-out of female senators from talks on a health care plan with significant consequences for women, Republicans dismissed the flap and sought to project an open-door policy.

“The working group that counts is all 52 of us,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters, referring to the Senate Republican conference, and “no one is being excluded based upon gender.”

The Kentucky Republican underscored that every Republican would have the chance to weigh in as the Senate crafts a health care plan that’s expected to diverge from the House-passed Obamacare repeal bill. Future GOP conference lunches would be “devoted almost entirely to the health care issue, and everybody’s a part of this discussion,” McConnell said.

The working group’s Tuesday meeting focused on Medicaid, with West Virginia GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito — whose state has taken advantage of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion — invited to attend. It is unclear if other women senators will attend future meetings, according to senators and aides.

But Democrats continued to savage the GOP for its all-male working group, picking at Republicans’ self-inflicted political wound. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the caucus’ No. 3 leader, quipped to reporters that she hoped Republican health care meetings were not “happening in the men’s locker room.”

And while McConnell sought to highlight the inclusion of female Republicans, Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) dismissed the criticism outright.

“That is such a bogus issue,” Cornyn told reporters. “I guess you guys have swallowed it hook, line and sinker.”

Republicans can afford to lose only two of their own members on any Obamacare repeal bill, which they plan to pass using powerful budget reconciliation procedures that can circumvent Democratic filibusters. “It’s just foolish to think that we’re excluding somebody,” Cornyn said.

Murray countered that the core group of all-male health care decision-makers would make a substantive difference in the Senate’s final product.

“We know it makes a difference when there are women in the room,” she said. “Without women in that working group, I can tell you right now, it’s not going to address the issues.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) acknowledged in an interview that "clearly, the optics are not too great. But Mitch was claiming at the lunch that there were women involved."

Nebraska Republican Sen. Deb Fischer, a member of leadership, said in an interview, “I’m not shy” about speaking out regardless of any formalized group membership.

“I don’t feel” excluded, Fischer said, “and I doubt my colleagues do. The leader said anybody who wants to have more formal involvement is welcome to do so. No one is being shut out.”

Despite a report of White House interest in adding a woman to the health care working group, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday that he is unaware of any pressure President Donald Trump’s administration is putting on Senate GOP leaders.

But the White House would support adding female senators to the health care talks, Spicer told reporters, and any other individuals who might be of assistance.

“I’m not going to tell [McConnell], or the White House is not going to tell him, how to conduct a panel,” Spicer said. “At the same time, I think that any voices that can be constructive in getting a more patient-centric health care system put together would be welcome. But that’s not our call to make.”

Josh Dawsey and Louis Nelson contributed to this report.

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