Senate Democrats are escalating their attack on Republicans’ plans to repeal Obamacare this week, though their party remains divided on how far to take activists’ demands that they shut down the Senate in protest of the GOP’s dismantling of the Affordable Care Act.
Democratic senators are planning to hold the Senate floor until at least midnight on Monday to thrash Senate Republicans for refusing to hold committee hearings on their healthcare overhaul, according to several people familiar with the plan. The round of speeches is being organized by Sens. Patty Murray of Washington state and Brian Schatz of Hawaii.
But on the more weighty question of whether to object to the GOP’s committee hearings or refusing to allow routine business in the Senate regarding nomination votes or uncontroversial matters, the party has made no final decision. While the party’s liberal wing is demanding that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and his team shut the Senate down, Schumer has made no decision and often tries to forge consensus in his caucus before executing party strategy.
Though several sources on the party’s left believe Schumer may be open to the idea, Democratic leaders have been resistant to procedural obstruction thus far. They believe blocking unrelated matters could shift the spotlight from Republicans’ secretive process to Democratic obstruction. And it could set expectations high among the party’s base that Democrats can stop the repeal, when in reality if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has the votes the party will be powerless to stop him.
In interviews this week, Democratic senators were cagey about how far they would take their procedural warfare.
“I don’t know about shutting the Senate down. But I think you’re going to see some effort to highlight that this has never been done before,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).
“We are going to fight it every single step of the way,” Murray said. As far as grinding the Senate to a halt, she said it hasn’t been a focal point of discussion in the 48-member caucus.
It’s not a decision without risk. Democrats could unify Republicans if they began scuttling the Senate’s business over health care. Right now, the GOP is still deeply divided over how much to cut into future Medicaid spending and how much regulations to gut. A Democratic campaign of parliamentary warfare could motivate the GOP to put aside its differences.
And stopping the Senate’s hearings or objecting to routine matters could take away the spotlight on Republicans’ repeal process, which is drawing growing criticism as a bill opaquely crafted behind closed doors. Furthermore, there are plenty of hearings that have bipartisan interest, such as a Wednesday hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.
But the minority party is nonetheless searching to make an impact on the GOP’s work, which thus far has been minimal because of Republicans’ plans to use a party-line budget “reconciliation” maneuver to cut Obamacare’s taxes and scale back the law overall. Democrats have been holding press events and making speeches in opposition to Republicans’ plans, but they have yet to make much of an impact on the GOP because, in the word of one Democratic senator, the minority party is “irrelevant” right now in the healthcare debate.
Republicans are publicly saying that they are aiming for the end of July for an Obamacare repeal vote, with much work ahead of them such as getting a Congressional Budget Office score and resolving the ideological chasms on Medicaid, Obamacare regulations and Planned Parenthood funding. But the GOP is still privately shooting for a vote in the next two weeks, in part, to avoid getting attacked by anti-repeal activists over the July 4 recess.
Some Democrats worry that the public doubt raised among Senate Republicans’ about their work on healthcare is a feint intended to catch them flat-footed when McConnell decides to bring the bill to the floor.
“Reconciliation really ties your hands,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Democratic voters are “adamant at [us] being full participants in this … it’s tough.”