Bipartisan talks to repair Obamacare are gaining traction among a group of Senate moderates, threatening to disrupt strategies from both parties’ leaders to keep members in line.
At least three moderate Democrats held an initial sit-down with half a dozen Republicans late Monday evening — the most tangible sign yet of centrists’ interest in finding common ground. The prospect of a bipartisan fix could chip away at GOP support for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan to repeal Obamacare and endanger Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s vow to maintain Democratic unity in opposition. But senators in both parties said their leaders knew about the meeting and made no moves to stop it.
Republican leaders "recognize that there is a lot of interest in this issue — that it’s extremely important and that it’s obvious that members are going to talk to one another about it,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who organized the meeting with Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.).
Asked about Collins and Cassidy’s health care talks running parallel to McConnell’s own efforts, a GOP leadership aide said that “senators don’t need permission slips to meet on this subject or any subject. Senators are sent here by their constituents to do what they think is best and right.”
Schumer, meanwhile, has vowed that his 48-member caucus would stick together against McConnell’s plans to unravel the Affordable Care Act with only GOP votes, despite growing pressure on moderate Democrats to address the law’s problems as the 2018 midterms approach. But Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told reporters Tuesday that Schumer is aware of the bipartisan health care talks, and “It’s fine.”
Top Democrats argue it doesn’t undermine their message against full repeal of the 2010 health law.
“I’ve talked to one of [the moderate Democrats] and I believe the message that was given is pretty consistent and that is we’d like to see the Democrats engaged in this bipartisan conversation on a good faith basis, and we’d like to see more than just a handful of Democrats committed to whatever the change may be,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.
A senior Democratic leadership aide said Schumer signed off on the moderates’ presence because of the message they delivered — that Democrats remain united and won’t negotiate until the GOP abandons its push to repeal Obamacare with a simple majority. Manchin described his message at the meeting in a similar way.
“I said, ‘I don’t think there’s a Democrat that would vote for any type of a repeal. But I think there would be 48 Democrats who are willing to work on some repairing or fixing,’” Manchin said, adding, “Some of us are willing to work more than others.”
Manchin, North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, and Indiana Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly were spotted in the meeting Monday, which Cassidy and Collins organized over the weekend. Republican Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia also attended.
Heitkamp declined to comment on the discussion but said she wouldn’t shy away from necessary changes to Obamacare.
"The [GOP] language is, ‘This is spiraling out of control.’ I don’t believe that," she said. "But I also think that I came here to repair the health care law and make it more workable, and that’s my job."
Collins and Cassidy have talked with several other moderate Democrats who remain interested in a possible compromise approach despite not attending their first meeting. Among them is Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who told POLITICO, "There is a lot of conversation going on about how much do we agree on and how much do we disagree on."
But McCaskill warned that Senate Republicans would have to abandon the House repeal bill’s massive Medicaid cuts in order to win over any votes in her party. "Most of us on the Democratic side, if not all, are not excited about a cut in Medicaid in order to give a tax cut to wealthy people," she said. "It’s just a nonstarter."
Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Angus King (I-Maine) also did not attend but told POLITICO they are interested in the potential bipartisan approach.
No matter what happens to the bipartisan health care talks, Democrats may have little to lose by attending. At the least, these vulnerable Democrats can go home and tout their efforts to work across the aisle. The best case scenario for Democrats would see the Collins-Cassidy discussions erode momentum for McConnell’s Obamacare repeal bid, perhaps leading to implementation of a bipartisan fix.
Democrats may also hope to drive a wedge between moderate and conservative Republicans. When Democrats passed Obamacare through a Congress they controlled with a supermajority in the Senate in 2010, they griped that bipartisan health care reform talks held by former Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) made the process much more complicated, lengthy and ultimately partisan.
Collins downplayed any threat their bipartisan conversations would pose to the 13-person working group organized by McConnell.
“I am complimented that you think Cassidy-Collins can rival Mitch McConnell in terms of political oomph,” Cassidy said with a grin. “But I think the leader is the guy who has most of the cards here.”
Republicans also stand to gain from the talks if the GOP can leverage the open channel of communication to pick off a few Democratic votes for their repeal bill.
Both camps say that’s not happening so far.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who did not attend the bipartisan meeting, said that Collins is "bona fide" in her interest in bipartisanship and that holding bipartisan talks in order to peel off Democrats for McConnell’s solution is "not her M.O."
Democrats are standing together to oppose repeal, Tester said, without "a better option that improves access and affordability."