Senate Republicans Seek to Move Past GOP-Only Health Debate

Top Senate Republicans are trying to move on from their partisan drive to replace Obamacare despite urging from President Donald Trump to keep seeking a broad alternative to President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement.

The Senate health committee will begin bipartisan hearings in early September on stabilizing and strengthening the Affordable Care Act’s individual insurance market, Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and ranking Democrat Patty Murray of Washington said in a joint statement Tuesday.

“There are a number of issues with the American health-care system, but if your house is on fire, you want to put out the fire, and the fire in this case is the individual insurance market,” Alexander said Tuesday. “Both Republicans and Democrats agree on this.”

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, one of three in her party who voted to kill a bare-bones, GOP-only Obamacare repeal last week, told reporters, "It’s wonderful, it’s what I’ve been urging all along." She added, "Lamar Alexander is a master at getting bills through."

"I love it," said Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, another of last week’s three GOP votes against the bare-bones repeal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters Tuesday that while the GOP didn’t have the votes for the health plan last week, he still sees an opportunity later to pass a measure under a fast-track procedure. Republicans are continuing to seek analyses on several proposals from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, he said.

FBI Director

For now, the Senate is working to pass bills on veterans’ benefits and the Food and Drug Administration before the August recess. Senators confirmed Christopher Wray as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Tuesday.

The White House continues to seek action on a Republican-only health-care measure, giving particular focus to a proposal by Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. Their plan would send federal health-care funds to the states in block grants, while keeping in place Obamacare’s mandates that all Americans have insurance and most employers provide it.

But Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch said Tuesday he sees little chance of action any time soon after last week’s drive for a GOP-only replacement collapsed.

“We’ve got to let it simmer for a while until we get both sides into a position where they see we’ve got to do something here,” said Hatch, a Utah Republican.

QuickTake: Axing the Individual Mandate

Trump met with Graham to discuss the senator’s proposal just hours after GOP Senator John McCain of Arizona cast the decisive vote early Friday in the 49-51 rejection of the bare-bones repeal. Cassidy met at the White House Monday with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and four Republican governors, including Arizona’s Doug Ducey and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.

“We need governors on the front end, not on the receiving end,” Cassidy told reporters hours after his meeting.

Alexander said he wants to come up with a plan to stabilize insurance markets before Sept. 27, when insurers must sign contracts for sales in 2018. The committee plans to hear from state insurance officials, patients, governors, insurance companies and health-care experts, Alexander and Murray said.

In the meantime, Alexander has urged Trump to fund cost-sharing subsidies for insurers through September to give Congress time to finance the payments for a year. The president has repeatedly threatened to halt such payments.

California Insurers

California said Tuesday that health insurers that sell Obamacare plans in the state would double premium increases for some plans next year if Trump carries out his threat to end the subsidies. Insurers in other states have also cited uncertainty around the law, and the subsidies, as a driver of rate increases for next year. 

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said guaranteeing the subsidy payments for a year wouldn’t be enough to keep insurance companies in the individual markets.

"If they think that these payments are eventually going away, they’re looking for reasons to drop out of these markets," Murphy said. "If we’re going to go through the trouble of bringing Republicans and Democrats together to forge a compromise, let’s do it for more than one year.”

Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois said that following action on insurance exchanges and cost-sharing subsidies, something longer term would be needed, though he dismissed the idea that the Graham-Cassidy proposal is an easy answer to Obamacare’s challenges.

‘Magic Pill’

“I want to slow down this magic-pill theory, that there is just one idea out there that is going to solve it all,” Durbin said. “I don’t believe that. I want everybody to come up with their ideas. I think that’s how you get something constructive. But it isn’t just one thing, it isn’t just say, ‘Let’s send it all back to the states.’”

Second-ranking Senate Republican John Cornyn of Texas told reporters Monday that the GOP probably lacks the votes to bring anything to the floor because McCain is in Arizona undergoing treatment for brain cancer until at least September. McCain provided critical support to allow debate on an Obamacare replacement last week, despite his final “no” vote.

“Everything is harder when you have people who are missing, and certainly that would have an effect,” Cornyn said.

Collins and Murkowski have told reporters that onlookers in airports cheered when they each arrived home after helping defeat the effort. Both called for bipartisan committee hearings to debate further proposals.

“It’s just reinforced my desire to make sure that in these next steps we are open, that we are talking with everybody,” Murkowski said earlier Tuesday. She said she’s in no rush to push forward on the Graham-Cassidy plan or any other proposal.

“Time should not be our enemy,” Murkowski said. “We’ve been treating it that way.”

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