Senate Republicans are closer than ever to voting to repeal Obamacare after three months of work that’s unparalleled in its secrecy and speed. They’re unapologetic, though. Because so far, it’s working.
The closed-door deliberations, which have left even some GOP senators in the dark, have prompted widespread charges of hypocrisy and even a fair amount of heartburn within a party that railed for seven years against Democrats’ rush to pass their 2010 health reform law.
But it’s that secrecy that has also helped put the GOP within potential reach of dismantling Obamacare and handing President Donald Trump his first big legislative win.
By keeping the process under wraps, Senate Republican leaders have largely bypassed the headaches and inevitable blowback when any ambitious piece of legislation sees the light of day — especially one that has already become wildly unpopular if polls on the House GOP’s effort to overhaul the U.S. health care system are any indication.
They’re also betting that for all the stone-throwing from the left, voters already convinced that Congress is broken won’t punish Senate Republicans for putting yet another dent in the institution.
“I’ve always said I would’ve preferred a more open process,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said. “But if you just wait and say, ‘Oh, we want an open process,’ then you never get that. So at some point you’ve got to play the cards dealt to you.”
The Senate GOP’s speed play comes after House Republicans barely pushed through their own version of Obamacare repeal — an effort hampered by fierce criticism over both its secrecy and Congressional Budget Office projections the proposal would leave millions more Americans without health insurance.
Senate Republicans pledged to learn from the backlash and start from scratch on their own bill. Instead, they appear to be largely keeping the House-passed bill’s framework and moved their deliberations completely out of public view.
GOP lawmakers have spent the two months since debating broad policy during closed-door lunches, and confining the details to small-group meetings. The actual bill-writing has fallen to an even more select group.
“The leader is really writing this bill,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), referring to Mitch McConnell and his staff. “I mean, we can say the Finance Committee is. We can say the Budget Committee is. We can say the HELP Committee is. But the leader’s office is really writing the bill.”
That’s left much of the rest of the conference in the dark on the legislation’s final details, prompting uneasiness among lawmakers facing daily questions about the bill. A number of GOP senators say they’ve expressed private concerns about the process to Republican leaders, and have increasingly tried to fend off criticism by saying publicly they wish the conference had taken a different route.
“Health care is such an important thing, I think we should’ve debated it in open, in committee hearings,” said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, perhaps the most outspoken Republican skeptic. “If you do it on one side only, what you’re setting yourself up for is failure.”
Sen. Pat Toomey, who has spearheaded conservative senators’ effort to quickly end enhanced funding for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, bristled at questions about the GOP’s strategic secrecy.
“You can ask leadership for their reason,” the Pennsylvania Republican said. “They do what they do.”
Still, GOP senators aren’t slowing the march toward a vote, reasoning that the closed-door process has boosted their ability to briskly debate and cobble together proposals that could reshape health care for millions of people.
Republicans have only a limited period to repeal Obamacare under arcane Senate rules that require only 50 votes. They say that bypassing public hearings and committee markups saves valuable time that would otherwise be consumed by unyielding Democratic opposition. And avoiding the public scrutiny that comes with debating every provision in public has upped the odds that Senate Republicans can keep their thin majority united long enough to push the bill through the chamber.
“At the end of the day, you’re judged by what you get,” said one GOP senator, dismissing concerns about the lack of public feedback on the bill. “At the end of the day, they’re not going to be critical of how we got there.”
Others, including McConnell, wave off criticism of the GOP’s tactics as identical to the Democrats’ approach in the run-up to Obamacare’s party-line passage seven years ago. In fact, the approaches differ sharply: The 2009 debate over Obamacare spanned more than a year and included public hearings, committee markups and roundtables, with then-President Barack Obama at times taking questions directly from congressional Republicans.
Pressed on the contrast, GOP senators argue that lawmakers have nevertheless debated health care countless times in the several years since Obamacare’s passage.
“There’s been all this talk about having hearings,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said, exasperated. “My God, I went through how many hours of hearings?”
That hasn’t stopped Senate Democrats from seizing on the GOP’s secrecy, hoping to boost public criticism of a bill that they’re powerless to stop. During an all-night occupation of the Senate floor, Democrats railed against the repeal effort not only for rolling back Obamacare but for threatening to forever rewrite the rules for passing bills in a chamber famously known as the world’s greatest deliberative body.
“Perhaps some of the biggest issues of humanity were debated in an open forum — we have records of those discussions, records of those deliberations,” said New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker. “Tonight, it’s remarkable to me, it’s almost tragic to me, to see a process that is so broken, a process that is so secretive.”
Urged on by liberal activists, Democrats are weighing the strategy of grinding the Senate to a halt, in hopes of dragging out the chamber’s work and forcing the repeal bill to go public long enough to mobilize stronger opposition.
But Republicans’ secrecy has succeeded even in muting that resistance.
Activists have had no new proposals to rally against, and groups across the health care spectrum that hoped to help improve the House-passed repeal bill have found few opportunities to pressure senators over what’s ultimately included in the bill.
As for the public, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) dismissed speculation that voters would make Republicans pay a price.
“If you really want to judge whether Obamacare is a good election-year issue, then look at the last three election cycles,” he said.
Jennifer Haberkorn and Burgess Everett contributed.