By Sean Sullivan
WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats ramped up opposition Monday to the emerging Republican health care bill, launching a series of mostly symbolic moves including speeches that went late into the evening and a push to slow other Senate business to a crawl.
The aim, Democrats said, was to draw attention to the secretive process Republican leaders are using to craft their bill and argue that the GOP proposals would hurt Americans. The Democrats lack the power to prevent a vote and they don’t have the numbers to defeat a bill without Republican defections. So they are focusing this week on nonbinding protests.
At one point early Monday evening, more than a dozen Democratic senators sat at their desks on the Senate floor and took turns standing and asking for committee hearings on the bill and for the text to be released for greater scrutiny. Each time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., calmly rose from his desk at the front of the chamber and objected to their requests.
“This is going to be a long evening because there are a lot of folks who are frustrated,” Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said. In the hours that followed, Democratic senators, some who brought charts and other visuals, took turns delivering remarks on the Senate floor in which they upbraided Republicans.
The coordinated Democratic effort came amid a broader push by allied advocacy groups to try to pressure Republican senators not to vote for the bill, which aims to repeal and replace key parts of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. McConnell can afford to lose only two Republican votes.
The maneuverings also came on the eve of a closely watched special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, which Republicans are trying to hold. A Democratic victory could jolt the debate over health care by raising new questions about President Trump and the Republican agenda, in which health care is playing a feature role.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Democrats also would start objecting to all unanimous consent requests in the Senate, which are typically made to approve noncontroversial items, “save for honorary resolutions.”
“These are merely the first steps we’re prepared to take in order to shine a light on the shameful Trumpcare bill and reveal to the public the GOP’s backroom dealmaking,” said the Democratic leader on the Senate floor.
McConnell is trying to complete work on the bill and bring it to the Senate floor next week. But stark disagreements among Republicans over the direction the proposed legislation should go – and how it should differ from a bill that passed the GOP-controlled House in May – threaten to derail those plans.
One of the biggest issues yet to be resolved involves how to structure Medicaid, and plans appeared fluid on Monday evening, according to several Republicans familiar with the talks. Some Republicans in states that expanded Medicaid under the ACA were pushing for a significantly more gradual phaseout of that initiative than the House bill, while some conservatives were angling to try to slow the growth of Medicaid’s costs. Other questions remained on how to handle the taxes and regulations in Obamacare.
McConnell said Monday that Republicans are moving forward, but he did not discuss specifics.
“Senate Republicans will continue working because it’s clear that we cannot allow Americans’ health care to continue on its current downward trajectory under Obamacare, taking so many families with it,” McConnell said. “The Obamacare status quo is simply unsustainable. The American people deserve relief. And we’ll keep working to provide it.”
At one point, McConnell and Schumer, whose desks are near each other at the front of the chamber, engaged in a tense back-and-forth. McConnell said there would be “ample” opportunity for senators to review the measure and that it would be open for amendments.
“Will it be more than 10 hours?” Schumer replied.
“I think we’ll have ample opportunity to read and amend the bill,” McConnell responded, repeating himself.
“I rest my case,” concluded Schumer.
Republicans say they are working toward a goal of lowering insurance premiums for Americans. But the specifics in their bill have been closely guarded. McConnell and a small clutch of aides are crafting the bill as he consults GOP senators. Most of them say they don’t know what shape the bill is taking, and some have complained about the tightly controlled effort. Republicans do not plan to hold committee hearings on their bill.
Beyond the Capitol, Community Catalyst Action Fund, an organization that opposes the GOP effort, kicked off an advertising campaign Monday pressuring five Republican senators not to vote for the legislation.
The group is spending $1.5 million targeting the lawmakers with ads that include a TV commercial that begins with the scene of a young boy wheezing in his bedroom and his mother rushing to get his asthma medication.
“When this happens, she isn’t thinking about the health care bill in Congress,” the narrator says. “She isn’t thinking that it’ll force her to choose between filling his prescriptions or paying their mortgage.”
The organization, which bills itself as a consumer health group, is targeting Sens. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska, Jeff Flake, Ariz., Susan Collins, Maine, Dean Heller, Nev., and Shelley Moore Capito, W.Va.
All except Collins come from states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare. McConnell has proposed a three-year phaseout of the expansion. Some Republicans, including Capito, have pushed for a more gradual seven-year rollback.
Other organizations have been waging efforts to oppose the Senate GOP push. Last week, a coalition of medical and consumer groups held an event in Cleveland that was billed as the first of a series of gatherings to speak out against the House bill and the direction that Republican senators appear to be heading.
The coalition – which includes AARP, two hospital associations and four disease-fighting organizations – has said it will convene events in at least three other states in coming weeks, with the next one Wednesday in Reno, Nev.