WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Republicans on Thursday hurtled toward a late-night showdown over a stripped-down bill to unravel Obamacare after failing to pass broader legislation to cap their seven-year quest to gut a law that brought healthcare coverage to millions.
While Republican leaders hoped their so-called skinny bill can draw the votes needed for passage over unified Democratic opposition, they still had not unveiled its text as they headed toward an expected marathon succession of votes that promises to drag into early Friday morning.
“What there is a consensus on, I don’t think anyone knows,” Republican Senator John Kennedy said.
No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn said his party was working on a plan to repeal Obamacare’s mandate that Americans obtain health insurance or face a fine, as well as a partial repeal of the mandate that requires businesses to offer healthcare coverage to employees.
On the Senate floor, Cornyn said the bill will be called the Freedom to Choose plan, but gave few specifics. As outlined by Cornyn, the plan would repeal a few key provisions of Democratic former President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law, formally called the Affordable Care Act, without providing a far-reaching overhaul.
“We’ll be voting later on this evening. It’s coming together. You’ll know it when I know,” Cornyn told reporters.
The two biggest health insurance lobbies have publicly pushed back against repealing the mandate that individuals must obtain insurance without offering a replacement, saying it would make coverage more expensive for everyone.
Leading health insurers such as Aetna Inc have already pulled out of many of the individual markets created by Obamacare. Anthem Inc, one of the largest remaining players, said this week it may leave more Obamacare markets due to the uncertainty over the repeal process.
Republican leaders held a lunchtime meeting lasting more than two hours with the party’s senators seeking consensus.
“I urge everyone to keep working hard so we can get this over the finish line,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor.
The House of Representatives passed its own broad healthcare overhaul bill in May.
Senator Bob Corker said his fellow Republicans were not so concerned about the content of the skinny bill as much as they were seeking assurances that it is not an end in itself – but rather a vehicle to set up a committee of House and Senate lawmakers to meld the two chambers’ competing versions into a single comprehensive bill to be considered later.
“Do you really want to vote on something that doesn’t do a whole lot?” Corker asked.
Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley accused Republicans of pursuing a “secret plan” that would be “debated in the middle of the night.”
President Donald Trump, exasperated that a Congress led by his fellow Republicans has not yet sent him a healthcare bill, wrote on Twitter: “Come on Republican Senators, you can do it on Healthcare. After 7 years, this is your chance to shine! Don’t let the American people down!”
The Senate was set to embark on a rolling series of votes that would potentially involve scores of time-consuming amendments that can be offered by any senator. Republicans then hope to move to an up-or-down vote on their healthcare bill.
In a bit of political gamesmanship apparently intended to embarrass liberal Democrats who advocate a so-called single-payer, government-run healthcare system, McConnell had the Senate vote on a plan offered by Republican Steve Daines to create such a system even though Daines and other Republicans oppose the concept.
Democrats did not take the bait, and the measure lost 57-0, with 43 Democrats voting “present” rather than yes or no.
Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer blasted the skinny plan, saying the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office had estimated it would result in 16 million Americans losing health insurance over a decade and raise insurance premiums by 20 percent in January.
Republicans control the Senate by a 52-48 margin. They can afford to lose only two Republican votes for passage, with Vice President Mike Pence casting a tie-breaking vote.
Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, who oversees policies crucial to Alaska’s economy such as oil drilling, called Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who represents the state, to express Trump’s displeasure with her vote earlier in the week against opening debate on the healthcare bill, Murkowski spokeswoman Karina Petersen said.
Trump and other Republicans campaigned last year on a pledge to repeal and replace what they view as a failing law that constitutes government intrusion into people’s healthcare decisions. Democrats noted that Obamacare has extended insurance to 20 million Americans.
Republicans have faced an internal rift on healthcare, with hard-line conservatives seeking a bill that thoroughly scraps Obamacare and moderates leery of measures that could deprive tens of millions of people of insurance.
The Senate on Wednesday rejected a simple repeal of Obamacare, with a two-year delay so Congress could devise a replacement. On Tuesday, senators rejected the broad repeal-and-replace plan Republicans had worked on since May.
The biggest health insurer lobby, America’s Health Insurance Plans, sent a letter to McConnell reiterating that uncertainty over the healthcare system would drive insurance premium rates higher for 2018.
Insurers’ final rates for plans offered through Obamacare are due to be submitted to the government in mid-August, and without a government commitment to pay certain subsidies, insurers would be forced to raise premiums another 20 percent, the group wrote.
Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Yasmeen Abutaleb; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Doina Chiacu, Amanda Becker, David Morgan, Caroline Humer and Susan Heavey; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Frances Kerry
Senate plans vote on ‘skinny’ healthcare bill in marathon session