Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveils his health care proposal Thursday with a little boost – a pair of Republican victories at the ballot box that he can use to convince wavering senators.
McConnell is still in pursuit of 50 votes to pass the Senate’s repeal and replacement of the 2010 law known as Obamacare, and two congressional elections in South Carolina and Georgia will play a role. Had Republicans lost the contests in the Republican-leaning districts, his powers of persuasion may have taken a hit. Instead, he will point to the victories to argue that Republicans should stick to their script.
“This is something we’ve run on for a number of election cycles and I think the majority leader now may be able to make the point with even more certitude,” said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, who chaired the House health subcommittee that helped put together the House repeal measure.
“This is one of the reasons we’ve run and won,” Burgess said of the party’s promise to dismantle President Barack Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment.
“It’s a deliverable, it’s expected,” he said. “Every race is different, but the overall message from the elections is a reaffirmation of what the majority leader is trying to do.”
Republican candidate Karen Handel, who won the Atlanta-area congressional seat, suggested as much in her victory speech, telling her audience: “We need to finish the drill on health care.”
McConnell, who hopes to hold a vote on the measure next week, has a complicated task to get to 50. Senate Republicans hold a narrow majority of just 52 to 48, and he can only afford to lose two votes, if vice president Mike Pence casts a tie vote.
Several moderate Senate Republicans and those from states that expanded Medicaid under the 2010 law have voiced worries about the House legislation, which would phase out those Medicaid expansion programs. They’ve pushed for lengthier phaseouts, but conservatives want to more sharply trim back the cost of Medicaid. That means any gains McConnell makes with more moderate members could cost him conservative votes.
Democrats and some Republicans have complained that McConnell has kept the details of the closely held bill mostly under wraps. But McConnell said Wednesday the Senate will unveil the legislation Thursday and post it online “for everyone to review.”
John Rogers, the executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the polling in Georgia and South Carolina indicated that voters “don’t want someone to resist, they want someone who is actually going to represent them.”
Republican National Committee political director Juston Johnson added that it was prudent “not to extrapolate too much out of special elections.” But he said he believes the results indicate “voters want to send people to Washington to work with the president and get things done. All the Democrats have is obstruction, resistance and moral victories at this point.”
But Democrats noted that Republicans in the Georgia race, to replace Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, underperformed by about eight points.
That’s a caution sign for Republicans in 50/50 states, such as Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, the only Republican senator up for re-election in 2018 in state that voted for Trump’s Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, Democrats said. Adding to Heller’s predicament: Nevada’s Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, was the first Republican governor to embrace the Medicaid expansion and has soundly opposed the House health care bill.
”Given how badly Republicans are doing in these overwhelmingly Republican districts they might not be panicked, but they’re naive if they’re not scared,” said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist who is working with a coalition of Democratic groups that are fighting the repeal efforts. “The race had a lot of warning signs about the damage the Trump agenda carries on health care even if it didn’t set off a four-alarm fire.”
Ferguson suggested the “data from all of these special elections shows Trump has become a weight around the ankle of Republican candidates, they just haven’t sunk yet.”
Democrats have launched a full-scale campaign targeting several of the senators who could cast deciding votes. In Nevada, for example, Heller is the target of at least four radio, television and online advertising campaigns. In Las Vegas on Tuesday, Democratic state lawmakers and activists held a phone bank, calling Heller’s office to urge him to vote against the bill.
“After his numerous partisan votes in Washington to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, we can’t trust Dean Heller to do the right thing and protect our health care,” said Nevada State Democratic Party Chair William McCurdy II.
And the Nevada State Senate Majority Leader and Assembly Speaker sent a letter to Heller, asking him to not vote on the legislation until he returns to Nevada to explain how it would affect the state.
“Among state leaders, there is bipartisan opposition to any legislation that would reduce health coverage in Nevada,” the two Democratic leaders wrote.
Heller’s office told the Reno Gazette Journal that Heller is working with Sandoval and other senators from Medicaid expansion states to develop a solution.
“Liberal groups are putting politics above people, plain and simple,” spokeswoman Megan Taylor said in a written statement. “They don’t care about Nevada or the people of Nevada.”
Sandoval has said he won’t support a Medicaid rollback, telling reporters last week in Nevada that he planned to do “what it takes to protect” Nevada enrollees, according to the Nevada Independent.
“Obviously my preference is that it stay the way it is,” Sandoval said, referring to the two-, five- and seven-year time lines that Republicans have suggested for a Medicaid expansion phase out. “That has always been something that I’ve spoken for and fought for on behalf of the newly eligibles. It’s working — we have brought down our uninsured rate.”
The expansion of the program provided health-care coverage for 11 million additional Americans, including 400,000 in Nevada, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Sandoval and six other Republican and Democratic governors expressed worries about the House health care plan in a letter Friday to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, singling out the Medicaid provisions in the legislation as “particularly problematic.”
Heller said Tuesday he’d vote for the bill if it was good for Nevada.
“What will make me comfortable is a discussion with the governor,” he told Politico.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who served with Heller as a secretary of state, said Heller, like other senators, will stick to what is best for their states.
“His consideration really will revolve more around the quality of the bill than the political consequences for himself,” Cole said.