Four days ago, Sen. Ron Johnson’s opposition to the GOP’s Obamacare repeal bill melted away and he said he would vote to open debate on the bill. But over the weekend, Johnson said he discovered Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had committed a “breach of trust.”
The Wisconsin Republican was stunned to read in the Washington Post that McConnell was privately arguing that major reforms to Medicaid were so far off in the distance that they would never take effect. Johnson said Monday that he’d confirmed through conversations with other senators that McConnell had made the remarks, which he said now puts a procedural vote on the bill in “jeopardy.”
“The reported comments from Leader McConnell before last Thursday about ‘don’t worry about these Medicaid changes they won’t take effect,’ that’s troubling to me. I have talked to senators that basically confirmed that. I’ll see what Leader McConnell says tomorrow,” Johnson said on Monday evening. “From my standpoint, it’s a pretty serious breach of trust, those comments. I’m just troubled by those comments.”
In response to Johnson’s comments, McConnell said, “I prefer to speak for myself, and my view is that the Medicaid per capita cap with a responsible growth rate that is sustainable for taxpayers is the most important long-term reform in the bill. That is why it has been in each draft we have released.”
Johnson wouldn’t say how he will vote on the bill later this summer once Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) returns from his surgery. With two Republicans already in opposition to the measure, opposition from Johnson would be a death blow to the bill.
Johnson rebelled against McConnell’s plans to hold a June vote alongside three other conservatives, then began urging his colleagues to support opening debate on the bill last week after an amendment from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was added to the bill to allow people to buy cheaper insurance plans that are not covered by Obamacare’s regulations.
Now Johnson is back where he was before, only angrier.
His shifting stance is the latest headache for McConnell, who is struggling to keep the GOP’s repeal effort alive.
More than a half-dozen key senators are undecided on the bill, many wavering over those future cuts to Medicaid spending. All said Monday they have not changed their minds.
“I’m reserving judgment. I want a CBO score, analysis and we’re still doing more work on it,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.). “They need more time … we’re still working on it.”
“Still talking, so that’s a good thing,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who is concerned about how rolling back the Medicaid expansion will affect her state.
McCain’s return is indefinite, with Republicans hoping he can come back by next week for a procedural vote. But nothing will be final until the latest report from McCain’s doctors is released, which Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said could be in the next couple days.
Meanwhile, the Republicans’ health care bill is twisting in the wind.
“We’re not going to come up short,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). When McCain returns “will be very influential. We need a full contingent of the Republican senators. We don’t have any to spare.”
President Donald Trump is also ramping up his outreach to the Hill — hosting a handful of GOP senators at the White House Monday night, including Cornyn, John Thune of South Dakota, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Steve Daines of Montana and James Lankford of Oklahoma, according to Republican aides. All are expected to vote for the bill.
Key swing-votes such as Rob Portman of Ohio, Mike Lee of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Johnson are not attending.
Republicans don’t expect a firm picture of whether the bill can even make it to the Senate floor or when they can hold a vote until perhaps the end of the week, according to GOP aides. They will use this week to tweak the bill, particularly Cruz’s amendment, which some Republicans worry was rushed. A Congressional Budget Office analysis has also been delayed as the bill is rewritten.
Several senators have raised questions about the amendment, which would allow cheap plans to be sold alongside Obamacare-compliant plans that cover pre-existing conditions. Those plans’ premiums would have some subsidies, but senators are confused about whether that money would be drawn from a nearly $200 billion stabilization fund meant to woo moderates.
"The extra time gives us a chance to study the bill, to consider the Congressional Budget Office report and make any modifications that we need to make,” Alexander said.
But extra time cuts both ways. Though Republicans can change the bill further and try to whip up support, liberal activists also have more time to mobilize opposition. And a charm offensive from the Trump administration aimed at skeptical GOP governors seemed to have little impact over the weekend.
“Governors have a large say. The reason why we’re not at 50 right now is a lot of governors don’t like what we’re doing,” said Graham, who is pitching them on his own plan to block grant federal health care money to the states and keep all of Obamacare’s taxes.
That leaves the bill’s future almost totally uncertain with no scheduled vote, no CBO score and no firm whip count.
“The delay is what we have,” Alexander said. “So I don’t think we’ll know until we vote whether it’s been good or bad.”
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.