WASHINGTON – Republicans said it was time to end “the pain and hurt” of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul as they pushed Wednesday toward Senate passage of legislation dismantling that law and blocking Planned Parenthood’s federal funds.
After weeks of careful strategizing, GOP leaders began rolling out a measure they said would attract the votes needed for approval by week’s end. To achieve that, they included provisions that marked victories for some of the most conservative GOP senators balanced with concessions for more moderate Republicans facing competitive 2016 re-elections.
The bill faces solid opposition from Democrats and a certain veto from Obama. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tauntingly suggested they reconsider.
“This is their chance, and President Obama’s chance, to begin to make amends for the pain and hurt they’ve caused” by the law, which Republicans blame for rising health care costs.
Democrats countered that the doomed bill was political posturing that they plan to exploit in next year’s elections by citing some of its provisions.
“Far too many Republicans have doubled down on a favorite pastime – attacking women’s health and rights in order to pander to their extreme base,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said of the measure’s deletion of Planned Parenthood’s federal money.
The GOP says a veto will only help its presidential and congressional candidates by underscoring that Republican control of the White House and Congress could spell the end of the law they derisively label “Obamacare” and would imperil Planned Parenthood’s federal dollars.
“This is an exercise where failure was not an option,” John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate GOP leader, said Tuesday. He tacitly acknowledged the high expectations of many conservative voters that Republicans aggressively challenge Obama, calling the pending legislation “a mortal blow to Obamacare.”
Pleasing conservatives, the measure would all but kill the 2010 Affordable Care Act, effectively ending its requirements that individuals obtain health insurance and that large companies offer coverage to workers by erasing the financial penalties enforcing those obligations. The bill would also repeal the law’s expanded Medicaid coverage for lower-income people and its federal subsidies for those buying policies in insurance marketplaces, while repealing tax increases on items including medical devices.
For GOP senators facing tough re-election fights, the measure offers some relief: a two-year delay in its repeal of the exchange subsidies and the Medicaid expansion, according to lawmakers. That would allow Republicans to argue that the bill creates a two-year bridge until the next president takes office and can offer a replacement health care plan. In the five years since the health statute became law, the GOP hasn’t coalesced behind a replacement proposal.
That two-year delay also keeps the impact of those provisions from being felt immediately. That could help GOP senators facing strong re-election challenges in Illinois, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which are among 30 states that have expanded Medicaid to thousands of voters.
Also included is extra money for drug abuse programs – $1 billion over two years, by one account. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who could face a tough race next year, said that money is “important to me, especially with a heroin epidemic in Ohio.”
Republicans are bringing the bill to the Senate floor 11 months before an election in which Democrats have a real chance of retaking the majority of a chamber the GOP controls by 54-46.
Republicans avoided the need for 60 votes to overcome Democratic procedural moves to kill the measure by using a streamlined procedure available for deficit-cutting legislation. But even getting to 51 votes has been tricky for the GOP.
Presidential candidates Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas had warned that a House-approved version of the bill was too weak. But Cornyn said the Senate bill was “bigger and better” than the House’s.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said changes to the measure have helped attract “those who’ve said they weren’t going to support the House-passed bill,” a seeming reference to Cruz, Rubio and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who jointly issued that threat.
On the other end of the party spectrum, moderates including Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who faces re-election in 2016, and Susan Collins of Maine, were concerned about the bill’s Planned Parenthood cuts. The organization has faced Republican attacks this year for providing fetal tissue to researchers.
Democrats said they might offer amendments that, while doomed, could provide fodder for campaign ads next year.
These included a proposal to let Planned Parenthood keep its federal money – $450 million out of its $1.3 billion yearly budget.