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Facing GOP opposition, Senate leaders postpone vote to overhaul Obamacare

By Sean Sullivan, Kelsey Snell and Juliet Eilperin

Facing a rebellion within their own ranks, Senate Republican leaders on Tuesday postponed a vote to overhaul the 2010 Affordable Care Act until after the July 4th recess.

The current proposal by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would cause an estimated 22 million more Americans to be uninsured by the end of the coming decade while reducing federal spending by $321 billion during that time, the Congressional Budget Office concluded Monday.

The forecast by Congress’s nonpartisan budget scorekeepers appeared to rapidly erode Republicans’ confidence in the bill, with at least five GOP lawmakers saying that they would vote against even a procedural motion to start debate.

In a sign of the challenge Senate Republicans face in mustering enough votes, Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said the procedural vote is likely to be scheduled for Wednesday rather than Tuesday.

Members who have publicly come out in opposition are facing a full-court lobbying press from party leaders. Within the past two-and-a-half days, Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) has spoken with President Trump, Vice President Pence, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.). Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) spoke by phone with Trump on Monday and is scheduled to meet with him at the White House on Tuesday.

Johnson described the conversations as helpful but told reporters that he remained opposed to moving forward with the bill “for this week.”

“Lightning could strike, but I don’t see how I’ll have the information I need,” he said.

With Pence ready to cast a tiebreaking vote on the measure, Republican leaders can lose only two of their 52 members to pass the bill, which no Democrat is expected to support.

By late Monday, several GOP senators and aides appeared nervous and unsure about the path forward. They hedged on the timing of that procedural vote and suggested that the workweek could stretch beyond Friday. Further complicating the effort were at least two senatorial absences Tuesday: that of Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), whose father died Monday; and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who is undergoing cancer surgery.

Hirono’s spokesman Will Dempster said she is committed to returning “as quickly as she can” to the Senate.

Despite several Republicans’ public opposition, Senate leaders held out some hope for salvaging the effort, pointing to the CBO’s estimates of deficit savings as a silver lining that allows them to allocate additional funds to try to ease some members’ concerns.

If the Senate version does emerge, House leaders have not ruled out the possibility of a quick vote without negotiating the differences with their own bill, passed out of the House in May. Ultimately, the measure appeared to be teetering between two dramatically different outcomes – a rapid defeat and an equally rapid path to Trump’s desk.

Ryan would not say Tuesday how his chamber would act if the Senate passes a health-care bill this week, saying, “We just don’t know what the final bill is going to look like.”

But multiple House GOP aides said Monday that there was a possibility that the leader would take a Senate-passed bill and try to move it through to final passage before the July 4 holiday. The GOP whip office advised members that “additional legislative items are possible” beyond what is scheduled for the week.

“I would not bet against Mitch McConnell,” Ryan said, downplaying the chances that the bill could stall. “He is very, very good a getting things through the Senate even with this razor-thin majority.”

The release of the 49-page CBO ­report late Monday afternoon provided a new hurdle for the bill, which leaders hope to bring to a vote by Friday. No new senators immediately said they would back the legislation, and Sens. Johnson, Paul, Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mike Lee (Utah) signaled that they would vote against starting debate Tuesday on the bill in its current form. A fifth senator, Dean Heller (R-Nev.), had expressed his opposition last week and has not shown subsequent signs of changing his mind.

Collins, a moderate Republican, tweeted that the measure would “hurt [the] most vulnerable Americans” and failed to solve the problems of access to care in rural Maine, where, she wrote, “hospitals are already struggling.”

Lee is still negotiating with Senate leaders on the base bill, his aides said, and he could change his position depending on the outcome of those talks.

Others signaled that while they would vote yes on the procedural motion, they remained undecided on the bill itself.

Senate leaders quickly began working with undecided senators to determine whether any skeptics could be won over with additional spending on priorities such as expanding incentives for health-savings accounts favored by conservatives or a fund to help battle opioid addiction favored by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). Leaders can spend about $188 billion on increased spending without running afoul of Senate budget rules.

Asked whether McConnell and other Senate leaders have the support they need to pass the measure, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) responded, “Anyone would tell you they don’t.”

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus and a key player in the passage of the House health bill, warned Tuesday that House passage of a Senate bill is not assured.

“If it’s predominantly the bill that is currently in the Senate, without significant amendments, there would not be enough votes in the House or the Senate to pass it,” he said.

Cornyn (R-Tex.) went out of his way to blame Democrats for not cooperating — a talking point Republicans are expected to underscore if their bill is defeated.

The CBO estimated that two-thirds of the drop in health coverage a decade from now would fall on low-income people who rely on Medicaid. And among the millions now buying private health plans through ACA marketplaces, the biggest losers would roughly parallel those under legislation passed recently by the House: The sharpest spike in insurance premiums would fall on middle-aged and somewhat older Americans.

Its analysis of the Senate measure’s impact on federal spending — $321 billion saved over a decade — compared with $119 billion for the House’s version.

Paul called the Better Care Reconciliation Act “a terrible bill” on Monday, and repeated his contention that it would not go far enough in repealing the sprawling health-care law enacted seven years ago by a Democratic Congress and president.

Another conservative critic of the plan, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), would not say Tuesday whether he would vote to proceed with the bill.

“It remains a work in progress,” said Cruz, who has said he cannot support it in its current form. “My focus is on lowering premiums.”

And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who remains undecided, said he was meeting privately Tuesday with Florida Gov. Rick Scott and McConnell. He said he supports bringing the bill up for a vote and might propose amendments to the way the bill addresses Medicaid.

“You can’t amend a bill that is not up,” Rubio said.

McConnell took to the Senate floor just before the report’s release to press anew for rapid action. He made it clear that the bill, already tweaked early Monday, could be negotiated further to try to win over holdouts.

“The American people need better care right now,” McConnell said. “This legislation includes the necessary tools to provide it.”

Democrats quickly seized on the CBO’s projection of how much the ranks of the uninsured would grow.

“Republicans would be wise to read it as a giant stop sign,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters. “No matter how the bill changes around the edges, it is fundamentally rotten at the center.”

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