After pushing hard for greater scrutiny on the deepening Russia investigations, Senate Democrats now want to shift their attention to killing the Republicans’ back-room negotiations to repeal Obamacare.
Democrats know their base is still inflamed by the daily revelations about President Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia and his resistance to the FBI’s investigation into those ties. But Senate Republicans’ attempt to kill the Affordable Care Act is quietly proceeding toward a floor vote this summer — which Democratic senators say represents the party’s best opportunity to flex its muscle.
With White House turmoil regularly dominating the news, some Democrats are starting to fret that the public is losing sight of the Senate GOP’s healthcare plans, which could strip millions of insurance while cutting taxes on the wealthy.
“My worry is that this story still dominates the headlines and provides cloud cover for Republicans who are rewriting the American healthcare system with nobody watching,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “We can make Republicans’ life a living hell if they put a bill on the floor that looks like the House proposal. But we need to be ready.”
Senate Democrats got pretty much everything they wanted in regard to Russia this week when a special prosecutor was named to plumb the depths of the Trump-Russia connection. An independent commission remains at the top of their wish list, but the surprising appointment of Robert Mueller, a well-respected former FBI chief, to lead the investigation gives Democrats space to pivot back toward an Obamacare repeal bill that Republicans could bring to the floor as soon as next month.
The House’s repeal efforts dominated headlines earlier this spring. But for now, the Senate GOP’s work is not moving the needle in the same way, in part due to a secretive process that will include no public hearings or committee votes. And that’s a problem for a Democratic Party that’s entirely sidelined by a GOP procedural strategy that will require zero Democratic votes to pass a bill.
"They are writing it with 13 white guys behind closed doors and they’re going to spring it on the floor. It’s kind of amazing," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said, referring to Senate Republicans’ controversial working group.
“The reason they stumbled so badly in the House is because the public was so engaged. And we’ve got to keep them engaged,” Brown added. “It’s a little harder with all this stuff” emerging about the Trump White House.
That doesn’t mean Democrats are going to stop talking about Trump’s ties to Russia in the coming weeks. After a chaotic clip of revelations escalated by Comey’s firing, however, they’re ready to start re-emphasizing pocketbook issues like health care ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said that while “I hear some” talk from constituents about Russia, the real-world consequences of Obamacare repeal are the most significant issues he hears about back home. Now that the special prosecutor is at work, Coons added, health care is “a key question to which we must now return.”
Some Democrats see an opportunity to use the Russia cloud hanging over the White House to further toxify the repeal effort they’ve labeled “Trumpcare.”
“It’s true that the news hole is rather small for non-Russia-related matters, but I think that imperils their agenda,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said. “Trumpcare was very, very unpopular. This makes it harder, not easier for them.”
Senate Republicans are also well aware that the special prosecutor’s appointment turns the spotlight back to their health care talks.
“You guys will have to pay more attention to us, right? Because you don’t have as much to cover at” the White House, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said.
The GOP’s closed-door process on health care is sparking particular frustration among moderate Democrats, several of whom are talking with potential dealmakers Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.). But Collins and Cassidy don’t have significant roles as GOP leaders work to unravel as much of Obamacare as possible with more conservative senators.
“I don’t know why there are six or seven people behind closed doors” steering the chamber on health care, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said. “There’s not been an open hearing on health care yet in [the Senate]. That’s crazy.”
A successful health care bill “is not going to happen without a bipartisan effort,” warned Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has given a pass for moderate Democrats to speak to Collins and Cassidy generally about health care as long as they keep the caucus apprised of their work, according to Democratic sources. Though liberals like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are embracing a single-payer health care system, Schumer is also encouraging his members to resist the urge to introduce competing plans to contrast with the Republicans.
“We’re happy to work with them to fix and improve the [Obamacare] exchanges,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said. “But we’re not going to engage in a conversation to cut Medicaid and Medicare.”
The Russia controversy has added new uncertainty to an Obamacare debate already plagued by precariousness; Trump has told advisers he wants to end key subsidy payments, which could blow up health insurance markets.
“When it comes to Trump, there’s always an unexpected turn. So I’m not sure exactly what our focus will be tomorrow,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “The problems in our healthcare system are being caused by President Trump right now, not the Affordable Care Act. And we are going to continue to point that out.”
Republicans, for their part, are prepared for Democrats to turn up the pressure over Obamacare as they try to hash out a repeal plan that can net 50 GOP votes under budget reconciliation procedures.
“It would be great if we could find a way to bring Dems into the discussion. But the reality is they’re enjoying watching us struggle with this like they did with Obamacare for seven years,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). “They want us to feel the political heat.”
Trump’s alleged attempts to quell the Russia investigation may yet steal some of that heat back from Obamacare. But now that they’ve secured a special prosecutor, Democrats are “pleased to have something else to talk about,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said.
“And it’s hard to think of something more important" than health care, he added.