As Republicans pull the Senate closer to a potentially momentous Obamacare repeal vote, Democrats are pushing back with one of the only weapons the minority has left: public pressure.
Democratic senators have focused for weeks on denying Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) any help in getting the 50 votes he needs to begin debating a repeal bill, a strategy that had so far paid off as Republican moderates and conservatives fought.
With McConnell now appearing close to opening debate on repeal — although with no clear sense of the ultimate result — Democrats are planning to appear alongside liberal activists after Tuesday’s pivotal vote for a pro-Obamacare vigil organized by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
And they’re vowing that Tuesday’s vote will haunt politically vulnerable GOP senators, starting with Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) who face reelection next year and continuing well into a much less friendly 2020 cycle for President Donald Trump’s party.
Centrist Republicans who agree to start debate on the health bill with the vague hope of finishing their work in conference committee negotiations with the House are taking a risky leap to the right, Democrats warned.
Voting to open debate on Tuesday “will mean deep cuts to Medicaid, maybe even deeper than in the House bill” to repeal Obamacare, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the floor.
“It will mean people with preexisting conditions will be left high and dry. It will mean huge tax breaks for the wealthiest of Americans. It will mean millions will lose their coverage.”
Behind closed doors, Democrats are also crafting their strategy for a potentially wide open amendment process on the bill, if Republicans do corral 50 votes to begin debate. Liberal groups are pressing for Democrats to flood the zone with thousands of amendments and take advantage of Senate rules that allow for a theoretically unlimited series of votes. Such an amendment process is permitted under the budget reconciliation framework McConnell has chosen to push through Obamacare repeal along party lines.
"It’s safe to say there’s not a lot of enthusiasm for a short process," said Sen Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), adding that he alone has drafted about 100 amendments to bring up during a potential vote-a-rama.
The caucus has “talked about it from a lot of different angles,” Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said.
“And we think there are just some major substantive issues that need to be raised. But the most fundamental issue is whether or not this whole matter should be sent to committee, to go through the regular bipartisan process of expert testimony and amendments and let the public see what’s being offered.”
Asked later how many amendments Democrats would offer, Durbin said: "Many."
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said that he would push for a vote on a bill he and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) have offered to provide a reinsurance backstop for the individual market that has long teetered.
“But I know a lot of my colleagues have other amendments too, and we need to figure out how to prioritize,” Kaine said in an interview, predicting that Democrats would have “a core [group] that we really want to” offer.
Before any slate of amendments is firmed up, Democrats are still waiting on the sidelines as the GOP struggles to unite, gnashing their teeth at the unprecedented secrecy that McConnell has employed throughout the Obamacare debate.
“It depends on what they’re doing,” Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Democrats’ third-ranked leader, said of the caucus’ next steps. “This is a complete jump ball at the moment.”
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.