Mitch McConnell’s current whip count to repeal Obamacare is far short of 50 votes. There is still no bill, and even Republicans are moaning about the rush and lack of transparency.
The GOP plan to jam through a bill over the next 10 days amounts to a rare political risk by McConnell with no guarantee of success — and one that could jeopardize his Senate majority long-term if the bill ends up being viewed as poorly as the House-passed bill and its 17 percent approval rating.
McConnell himself wouldn’t guarantee passage on Tuesday, or even commit to a vote next week, though that is his plan. Some Republicans suspect the Senate majority leader has a master legislative stroke ahead, but it appears only the canny Kentucky Republican has any inkling of what will transpire next week.
With a razor-thin margin, McConnell can only afford to lose two votes. A handful of moderates and conservatives have already — and loudly — voiced their concerns with the Senate bill so far, meaning McConnell is going to have to choose between making the moderates happy, making the conservatives happy or somehow splitting the difference.
“We don’t have a bill. But I’m confident,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “It’s my job to find 50 votes. We’re going to have 50 votes.”
Unlike with most legislative gambits on Capitol Hill, Republicans are divided on what exactly is going to happen: Those close to leadership believe passage is likely next week, while others on the periphery of the caucus are far less bullish and say the same intractable debates over pre-existing conditions, Medicaid and Planned Parenthood are still raging.
Already, the emerging GOP bill is drawing critics from across the spectrum of the GOP conference, not to mention furious Democrats.
“I think you’re going to wind up with what you had with the House bill. About 20 percent of the public’s going to think it’s a good idea,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who appears to be an almost-certain “no” vote. “No Democrat’s going to like it, that’s half the public. And half the Republicans are going to say: My goodness, it certainly doesn’t look like repeal.”
Republicans believe that setting a deadline of next week is necessary to get the Senate GOP out of its rut and its circular negotiations. And McConnell could always introduce a bill this week and pull it before next week’s vote is held, still leaving him with a month to get the bill across the finish line before the August recess, considered a harder legislative deadline.
There is no formal whip count right now, though leadership is aware of two moderates, at least a trio of conservatives and a half-dozen senators from Medicaid expansion states who need to be placated. Whether or not those wobbly Republicans will vote for the bill is unlikely to be clear until a Congressional Budget Office score emerges early next week which will spell out in plain English what their bill will do, including how much it will cost and how many people will lose health coverage.
“I assume we’ll vote on this bill whether we have 50 votes or not,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), one of McConnell’s deputies. “On a bill like this, everything happens in the last 10 days.”
Most senators said things are impossible to game out at this stage, barely a week before the vote, with no bill text in hand and no CBO score. Several Republicans on Tuesday hedged their support until they see text, but said they want to have at least several days to review it.
An activist approached Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the Russell Office Building to ask him when the healthcare bill would be public. His response: “I don’t know.”
“I can’t say no to something I haven’t seen. It’d be nice to say no, but I haven’t seen something to say no to,” he growled when asked about how he can turn his process complaints into action.
After weeks of lengthy meetings on healthcare and little movement toward consensus, one thing has become clear: McConnell is ready to change the conversation. His preference is to pass a bill, but he and the rest of his caucus are ready to reach a conclusion.
Republicans say that when McConnell puts the bill up for a vote, the bill will be boiled down to a binary decision by leaders: Either you’re on the side of Obamacare, or you’re against it.
“It’s hard for eight years to be critical of something and then turn around and vote against [repealing] it,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), a close leadership ally.
For all the public complaints from Republicans about the lack of transparency, senators aren’t generally taking their complaints behind closed doors, which could suggest a rosier outlook for McConnell than many senators’ comments have suggested. At a party lunch on Tuesday, Republicans mostly just listened to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price talk about changes he can make through the executive branch’s authority.
But there are exceptions.
“I won’t vote yes until I’ve satisfied myself that it’s a continuous improvement over what we currently have and I’ll need information to make that determination,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said gruffly after party meetings on Tuesday. “I’ll have to see what the final bill is. And by the way, I think the American people ought to have enough time with the final bill as well.”
Senate Republicans are moving forward amid the uncertainty in part because they are largely insulated from short-term political blowback with a highly favorable battleground map in 2018. It’s difficult to envision how Republicans could lose the Senate next year in response to passing an unpopular bill, though they could pay a price in 2020 if the public sours on the opaque, partisan process or the results of the repeal effort, which will likely come into focus by the next presidential election.
It’s not lost on Republicans the price that Democrats paid by passing Obamacare: losing the House, then the Senate and statehouses and governor mansions across the country.
"If at the end of the day this ends up easing some of the pain that’s out there right now relative to healthcare, I think people will look favorably upon that,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “If it ends up making things worse I think they will look upon it very much like the ‘09 bill passage did” among Democrats.
In the short term, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) is the most vulnerable Senate Republican, the only incumbent up for reelection in a state won by Hillary Clinton. But he says he’s willing to follow McConnell and risk his seat if the bill is favorable to his state.
“I will vote for this if it’s good for the state of Nevada,” Heller said Tuesday. As to whether the emerging outline is good for the state, Heller couldn’t yet say. “I’m going to find out when I see the CBO,” he said. “What will make me comfortable is a discussion with the governor.”
Indeed, the fortunes of the bill will develop over the next week and may not come into focus until perhaps a day or so before the vote. A group of about a half-dozen senators from Medicaid expansion states are still resisting reduced spending rates on Medicaid, and conservatives say they can’t commit until they are convinced that the bill lowers premiums.
The lack of bill text has only heightened the uncertainty, and delayed the tough choices among Senate Republicans until they actually hold the bill in their hands.
“I’m not going to tell you I’m going to vote for something I’ve never seen,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.). “You’re asking hypotheticals. So I have to answer in the hypothetical.”