Senate GOP sees no path on health care, despite Trump prods

Friday, July 28, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 30

WASHINGTON (AP) — Top Senate Republicans think it's time to leave their derailed drive to scrap the Obama health care law behind them. And they're tired of the White House prodding them to keep voting until they succeed.

Several GOP leaders said Monday that at least for now, they saw no clear route to the 50 votes they'd need to get something — anything — recasting President Barack Obama's health care statute through the Senate. Their drive crashed with three disastrous Senate votes last week, and their mood didn't improve after a weekend of tweets by President Donald Trump saying they "look like fools" and White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney using TV appearances to say they should continue voting.

Mulvaney has "got a big job, he ought to do that job and let us do our jobs," No. 2 Senate GOP John Cornyn of Texas said. He also said of the former House member, "I don't think he's got much experience in the Senate, as I recall."

"It's time to move onto something else, come back to health care when we've had more time to get beyond the moment we're in," said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, another member of the GOP leadership. Asked about threats by conservative groups to attack GOP lawmakers who abandon the fight, Blunt said, "Lots of threats."

While the leaders stopped short of saying they were surrendering on an issue that's guided the party for seven years, their remarks underscored that Republicans have hit a wall when it comes to resolving internal battles over what their stance should be.

Yet even the White House's focus turned Monday to a new horizon: revamping the tax code.

White House legislative director Marc Short set an October goal for House passage of a tax overhaul that the Senate could approve the following month. Plans envision Trump barnstorming the country to rally support for the tax drive, buttressed by conservative activists and business groups heaping pressure on Congress to act.

On health care last week, Republican defections led to the Senate decisively rejecting one proposal to simply erase much of Obama's statute. A second amendment was defeated that would have scrapped it and substituted relaxed coverage rules for insurers, less generous tax subsidies for consumers and Medicaid cuts.

Finally, a bare-bones plan by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., rolling back a few pieces of Obama's law failed in a nail-biting 51-49 roll call. Three GOP senators joined all Democrats in rejecting McConnell's proposal, capped by a thumbs down by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Republican, Democratic and even bipartisan plans for reshaping parts of the Obama health care law are proliferating in Congress. They have iffy prospects at best.

Republicans can push something through the Senate with 50 votes because Vice President Mike Pence can cast a tie-breaking vote. But rather than resuming its health care debate, the Senate on Monday began considering a judicial nomination.

In the House, 43 Democratic and Republican moderates proposed a plan that includes continuing federal payments that help insurers contain expenses for lower-earning customers. It would also limit Obama's requirement that employers offer coverage to workers to companies with at least 500 workers, not just 50.

But movements by House centrists seldom bear fruit in the House, where the rules give the majority party ironclad control, and Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., offered little encouragement.

"While the speaker appreciates members coming together to promote ideas, he remains focused on repealing and replacing Obamacare," said Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong.

Trump has threatened anew in recent days to cut off the payments to insurers, which total $7 billion this year and are helping trim out-of-pocket costs for 7 million people.

Those payments to insurers have some bipartisan support because many experts say failing to continue them — or even the threat of doing so — is prompting insurers to raise prices and abandon some markets.

Obama's statute requires that insurers reduce those costs for low-earning customers. Kristine Grow, spokeswoman for the insurance industry group America's Health Insurance Plans, said Monday that halting the federal payments would boost premiums for people buying individual policies by 20 percent.

"I'm hopeful the administration, president will keep making them," said No. 3 Senate Republican leader John Thune of South Dakota. "And if he doesn't, then I guess we'll have to figure out from a congressional standpoint what we do."

Senate health committee chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said his panel will hold hearings in coming weeks about how to steady roiled health insurance markets.

Hoping to find some way forward, health secretary Tom Price met with governors and Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy. Among those attending was Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who's been trying to defend his state's expansion of Medicaid, the health insurance program for poor people, against proposed GOP cuts.

Cassidy and Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., have proposed converting the $110 billion they estimate Obama's law spends yearly for health insurance into broad grants to states.


Associated Press writer Bob Christie in Phoenix, Arizona, contributed to this report.