• Senate Republicans are moving closer to wrapping up debate on repealing the Affordable Care Act.
• The health insurance lobby came off the sidelines Thursday to warn Republicans against repealing the individual mandate.
• Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called both Republican senators from Alaska to threaten them over their health votes.
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• One giant question remains: What final bill will Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, ask his colleagues to vote on?
Senate Republicans trim sails on ‘Repeal and Replace.’
Senate Republicans, unable to reach consensus on broad legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, are looking instead at chipping away at it.
Senator David Perdue, Republican of Georgia, said the main items under discussion for the so-called Skinny Repeal include repealing the mandates that most individuals have health insurance and large employers cover their employees. They are also likely to press for the repeal of a tax on medical devices and some other levies imposed by the Affordable Care Act.
“The skinny bill is getting bigger,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.
But to avoid a 60-vote threshold for passage, the bill must meet specific deficit reduction targets. It’s still not clear how those targets will be reached.
Then there’s the question of what would come next. Republican leaders are assuring senators that the narrow repeal would be merely a vehicle to begin negotiations with House Republicans on a broader compromise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. But some senators worry that they are being asked to vote for legislation they don’t like on a promise that it won’t become law — but they have no guarantee that the House won’t take it up and pass it.
Parliamentarian takes another scalp.
Senate Republicans also would have liked the “skinny repeal” to include a measure that would make it much easier for states to waive federal requirements that health insurance plans provide consumers with a minimum set of benefits like maternity care and prescription drugs.
Then the Senate parliamentarian stepped in. The parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, objected on Thursday to the waiver provision, saying it appeared to violate Senate rules being used to speed passage of the bill to repeal much of the Affordable Care Act.
Republicans want to make it easier for states to get waivers for two reasons: State officials can regulate insurance better than federal officials, they say, and the federal standards established by the Affordable Care Act have driven up insurance costs.
But Republicans are learning the limits of the fast-track rules they are using. The Senate is considering the repeal bill under special procedures that preclude a Democratic filibuster, but the procedures also limit what can be included in the bill.
“The function of reconciliation is to adjust federal spending and revenue, not to enact major changes in social policy,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont. “The parliamentarian’s latest decision reveals once again that Republicans have abused the reconciliation process in an attempt to radically change one-sixth of the American economy by repealing the Affordable Care Act.”
The Senate bill would give states sweeping new authority to opt out of federal insurance standards established by the Affordable Care Act. It builds on a section of the law that allows states to obtain waivers for innovative health programs. But it would relax many of the requirements for such waivers that Democrats put into the law, signed by President Barack Obama in 2010.
Insurers come off sidelines with warning.
The health insurance lobby, America’s Health Insurance Plans, came off the sidelines on Thursday to warn Senate leaders against repealing the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that most Americans have insurance without approving some mechanism to pressure people to maintain their coverage.
“We would oppose an approach that eliminates the individual coverage requirement, does not offer continuous coverage solutions, and does not include measures to immediately stabilize the individual market,” the group wrote.
AHIP played a major role in getting the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 but has been reluctant to intervene in the fight over its repeal. On Wednesday, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, a narrower insurance lobby, weighed in with a similar warning.
Both groups were pulled into the fray by expectations that the Senate could end up voting in the early morning hours of Friday on a narrow bill that repeals a few important parts of the Affordable Care Act but leaves much of the law in place. Two of the pieces that would be repealed are the mandates that individuals have health insurance and that large employers cover their employees. The Senate had intended to repeal those mandates but create a new rule that anyone who allows coverage to lapse would have to wait six months before getting a new policy.
That lock out period was supposed to be enough to convince people not to simply wait until they were sick to buy insurance, a prospect that could send insurance markets into a tailspin, since only sick people would have insurance.
But it looks certain that any bill that can emerge from the Senate would not have the lock out provision, a deep concern to insurers who say that without it, insurance premiums would soar.
The American Medical Association piles on.
The American Medical Association, by far the largest physicians’ advocacy group, has stood firmly against each of the bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Now the A.M.A. has come out against the “skinny repeal.”
“There has been considerable speculation regarding a so-called ‘skinny package’ that would primarily eliminate penalties related to the individual and employer mandates and provide tax cuts to device manufactures and the health insurance industry. Eliminating the mandate to obtain coverage only exacerbates the affordability problem that critics say they want to address. Instead, it leads to adverse selection that would increase premiums and destabilize the individual market.
“We again urge the Senate to engage in a bipartisan process – through regular order – to address the shortcomings of the Affordable Care Act and achieve the goal of providing access to quality, affordable health care coverage to more Americans.”
Has Alaska’s delegation crossed Trump?
President Trump went after Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who was one of only two Republicans to vote against starting debate on health care this week, with a Twitter post on Wednesday.
But that might not be the end of it.
Ryan Zinke, the Interior secretary, called both Ms. Murkowski and Alaska’s other senator, Dan Sullivan, “letting them know the vote had put Alaska’s future with the administration in jeopardy,” The Alaska Dispatch News reported. Mr. Sullivan, also a Republican, voted in favor of beginning debate.
“I’m not going to go into the details, but I fear that the strong economic growth, pro-energy, pro-mining, pro-jobs and personnel from Alaska who are part of those policies are going to stop,” Mr. Sullivan said, according to the newspaper.
But the leverage goes both ways.
Ms. Murkowski is the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight of the Interior Department. She is also the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the department.
She likely can do more to Mr. Zinke than he can do to her.
Tracked down by reporters on Capitol Hill, Mr. Sullivan called for the administration and Alaska’s small but powerful congressional delegation to “get back to cooperation.”
No word yet from Ms. Murkowski.
Where did the Senate leave off on Wednesday?
Wednesday’s big vote was on a measure to repeal major parts of the existing health law — but without swapping in something new.
Republicans have struggled to agree on the contents of a replacement for the law, so a “clean repeal” bill seemed like a good alternative to some of them.
But the measure was soundly rejected. Seven Republicans — including Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate health committee — joined Democrats in voting against it.
The repeal-only measure was expected to fail. But the episode demonstrated the problem facing Republican leaders: They don’t have enough votes to pass a broad replacement of the health law. They also don’t have the votes to simply repeal major parts of it.
What happens on Thursday?
Senate Republicans have been trying to push through a repeal by using special budget rules that limit debate to 20 hours. That time is expected to be exhausted on Thursday.
After it expires, the Senate will move into what is known as a “vote-a-rama” — a marathon series of votes on amendments.
Typically, Democrats would be expected to offer a barrage of amendments. But on Wednesday night, the minority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, said Democrats would not offer any amendments until Mr. McConnell revealed the final bill he wants the Senate to consider.
“We ought to see it soon, in broad daylight, not at the 11th hour,” Mr. Schumer said.
The vote-a-rama could begin late in the day on Thursday. If Democrats do offer a blizzard of amendments, it could stretch overnight. But it remains unclear when, exactly, Mr. McConnell plans to reveal his legislation.
Republicans seem increasingly likely to try to pass a slimmed-down bill that would repeal only a small number of the existing health law’s provisions. By passing a so-called “skinny” repeal bill, Senate Republicans would keep the repeal effort alive long enough to try to negotiate a broader compromise bill with the House of Representatives.