Senate Republicans are aggressively trying to rein in expectations for their Obamacare repeal effort, wary of blowing a deadline or falling short of 50 votes on a promise that has driven the GOP’s political strategy for much of the past decade.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is still aiming for an Obamacare repeal vote in June, though his lieutenants acknowledge that deadline could slip into July. And while GOP leaders want to hold the vote as soon as possible, Republicans continue to avoid hard deadlines and say factors outside their control could strike.
"It’s like having a baby," said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). "It’s not here yet, but it’s coming."
The number of outstanding variables is driving the uncertainty. Individual senators continue to raise doubts about coming to an agreement, even though McConnell is telling his members that "failure is not an option." Republicans say they will go as far as they can in repealing Obamacare and making conservative policy, even though they warn the Senate parliamentarian will have final say. And GOP senators said the timing is partially dependent on finding 50 votes and striking once there is consensus, and partially dependent on the Congressional Budget Office quickly writing a score for the bill this month.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 3 GOP leader, said the June vote time frame is “an aspiration” but not a hard deadline. CBO is expected to take two to three weeks to complete its work on the bill, though Republicans are already exchanging language with the organization.
“A lot of it is just getting stuff drafted and scored is a challenge. It’s all process now,” Thune said.
A public copy of the bill or the CBO score are not expected until just days before any vote, minimizing the ability of opposition to mobilize, aides said. If a June vote is not possible, Republicans hope to at least to have an agreement on a bill before heading home for the July 4 recess.
"The hallelujah deadline was the Fourth of July," said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), describing a best-case scenario.
McConnell has made plain to his members that a vote this month is his preference, allowing the Senate to turn to urgent fiscal matters next month to avoid a shutdown fight or a debilitating confrontation with Democrats over a looming deadline to raise the debt ceiling. Furthermore, Republicans would like to avoid another recess of getting beat up by Democrats while Obamacare negotiations hang in the balance.
But GOP leaders are also wary of what happened in the House: A perception of momentum and hard deadlines resulted in an an embarrassing pulled vote in March. Though House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) eventually prevailed, Republicans are wary of setting a vote and then trying to force resistant rank-and-file members to support it.
“Next month is my prediction. I just think it’s something we have to do before we leave for August,” Cornyn said in an interview. “You saw the House. It took them a couple of tries. Hopefully we’ll do it on the first try.”
Asked if he could guarantee passage this summer, Cornyn equivocated slightly: “My goal is to pass it. From my standpoint it’s a guarantee, my commitment. I just think there’s too much at stake, including the agenda this fall … We can’t get to that until we get this done. I’m optimistic.”
Granted anonymity, senators and aides talk about the exercise of trying to get 50 of the caucus’s 52 senators in support of the same bill as a parade of metaphors: A Rubik’s cube, herding cats or squeezing a balloon. Each tweak senators make to the legislation to satisfy one group might anger another, and there will only be bill text when there is general agreement by all 50 senators.
Senators from Medicaid-expansion states want more generous funding in the future, while non-expansion Republicans want more austere funding levels. More moderate Republicans are wary of stripping Obamacare regulations that consumers view as protective, while conservatives want to hack away at those rules to lower the cost of insurance. And a more generous bill may require delaying tax cuts, which would rankle fiscal conservatives.
Plus, the Senate parliamentarian could strike attempts to hack away regulations or restrict tax credits from funding abortion, or the CBO could take weeks to come back with a score and delay the bill until July. Republicans are adamant they want that score to show that the bill will lower insurance premiums more quickly than the House bill.
McConnell has committed to a vote. But he has not yet predicted victory.
“Mitch says we’re going to vote,” said a Republican senator. Even if that vote fails “most of us would rather have that vote and go home and say, ‘Hey, I voted to repeal.’ Or the handful that don’t can say, ‘It wasn’t good enough for our state.’”
Senators said no draft bill has been completed, and aides said the party is fearful of leaks of the party’s plans falling into the hands of conservative or liberal activists who would seek to scuttle the GOP’s negotiations. Those factors are leading to a secretive and opaque process that Republicans say is the only way to have a chance at success without the party’s ideological divides bringing down any early draft.
“This is typical with the process,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “We’re under pressure with the rules of reconciliation and everything else. This is not that unusual.”
Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.