Frustrated conservative groups are escalating attacks on Senate Republicans over the stalled health care bill, targeting individual senators and threatening political consequences if the GOP falls short of fully repealing Obamacare.
The sharp opposition comes after Republican leaders signaled they may try to make health insurance subsidies more generous in hopes of appeasing the moderate wing. That could further endanger Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s fragile bid to strike a compromise that will get him the elusive 50 votes he needs to pass a bill after the July Fourth break.
Senate Republicans agreed this week to add $45 billion to the bill to fight the opioid epidemic and even floated keeping more of Obamacare’s taxes intact. That wasn’t enough to win over the GOP’s centrist holdouts — but it inflamed conservatives upset at Republicans’ refusal to pursue the total repeal of the health law that they’ve been promising voters since 2010.
“Bob Corker needs to find whatever shred of conservatism he has left in his soul,” FreedomWorks’ Jason Pye said in an interview, singling out the Tennessee Republican, one of the senators who now favors keeping Obamacare’s tax on investments. “The past votes they took apparently don’t matter anymore. … They’ve spent seven years lying to conservatives.”
Conservative groups piled on during a conference call with reporters on Friday, questioning Republican leaders’ commitment to keeping campaign promises and warning that failure to gut Obamacare could prompt a backlash from the right come 2018.
“If the Republicans do not repeal this in some reasonable, credible way, I think it will be very divisive to the party,” said Jim DeMint, who was recently ousted as president of The Heritage Foundation. “This was a key promise to Republicans for years.”
Conspicuously absent from that call was the foundation’s sister organization, Heritage Action, which has tentatively backed the Senate bill after attacking the similar House legislation for months for being too soft on repeal. In a separate interview, Heritage Action Vice President Dan Holler said the goal is always to push for the most conservative policy solution possible, but with the understanding that that even chipping away at Obamacare is still a win. Even so, the organization’s pullback from demanding full and complete eradication of Obamacare has startled other conservative activists.
For other conservative groups, the vocal criticism on the conference call still marked an abrupt shift. Just a few days ago conservatives appeared content to let Senate Republicans tinker with their health care bill in relative peace. Outside groups planned to work quietly through allies like Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee to push the bill further right, while publicly trying to counter the liberal groups hoping to derail repeal altogether.
That strategy went out the window when GOP leaders offered concessions to moderate senators, while simultaneously resisting Cruz and Lee’s ideas for paring more Obamacare regulations.
Top Republicans protested that those proposals just wouldn’t pass muster under the Senate’s strict reconciliation rules. But conservative activists roundly reject that explanation.
“That Senate leadership is opposed or coming up with reasons not to support Sen. Cruz’s amendment tells you how far away we are from repeal,” said Chip Roy, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for the Tenth Amendment Action. “The Senate GOP seems hell-bent on leaving in place the Obamacare structure and most regulations.”
Conservatives got a surprise boost Friday morning, when President Donald Trump tweeted support for simply repealing Obamacare and passing a separate replacement bill down the road. Republicans had abandoned that strategy months ago over concerns it would abruptly leave millions uninsured and the insurance marketplace in tatters.
Outside groups — along with Sens. Rand Paul and Ben Sasse — quickly united behind Trump’s challenge, using it as ammo for a fresh round of attacks on McConnell and Republican moderates.
“The president and, I think, Sen. Sasse have their finger on the pulse a lot more than Senate leadership,” ForAmerica President David Bozell said.
McConnell has tried to shield his rank and file from outside attacks over Obamacare repeal, and limit damage to vulnerable members up for reelection in 2018, such as Nevada’s Dean Heller and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Earlier this week, McConnell fumed over pro-Trump group America First Policies’ plan to run ads against Heller for opposing the health care bill — a campaign the group dropped. Other conservatives aren’t ruling out assailing moderates over their shakiness on repeal.
“All these members of Congress are on record supporting full repeal,” said Andrew Roth, vice president of government affairs at the Club for Growth, pointing to a 2015 repeal bill then-President Barack Obama vetoed. “We’ve already spent north of $1 million against moderate Republicans in the House on their bill, so we’re clearly supportive of the tactic.”
Heritage Action’s Holler drew a slightly different picture: The GOP sold voters on an idealistic conservative vision of full repeal. Now it’s time to take what wins they can, but keep trying for more.
“What you saw during that time was a drive to make the Republican Party a more conservative party so they could win an electoral mandate,” Holler said of the run-up to the GOP’s sweep into power. “But it’s with an acknowledgment that there has to be policy outcomes, and the goal is to use those opportunities to get as many wins on the board as possible.”
That doesn’t mean that Heritage Action doesn’t think Senate Republicans have left much to be desired.
“It would certainly be helpful if the moderates stopped complaining and stopped asking for more. It would be a little easier to explain to the base,” he said, calling the Senate bill just an “incremental” step toward tearing down Obamacare. “But Rob Portman, he just won reelection. If he is not willing to deliver on promises he made now, it’s hard to see how that gets better in the next couple years.”