Mitch McConnell has no intention of leading President Donald Trump’s campaign to transform the GOP into the “party of health care.”
“I look forward to seeing what the president is proposing and what he can work out with the speaker,” McConnell said in a brief interview Thursday, adding, “I am focusing on stopping the ‘Democrats’ Medicare for none’ scheme.”
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The Senate majority leader spent untold weeks and months on the party’s health care quagmire in 2017, when the GOP controlled both the House and the Senate and still failed to repeal Obamacare. The episode caused endless headaches for Republicans as their replacement plan fell apart first, followed by the so-called “skinny” plan they slapped together at the last minute.
Now in divided government, with the Senate majority up for grabs next year and McConnell himself running for reelection, another divisive debate over health care is the last thing McConnell needs. But that’s exactly where Trump is taking Republicans after his administration endorsed a wholesale obliteration of the law in the courts earlier this week.
So the Kentucky Republican and his members are putting the onus on the president to figure out the next steps.
McConnell’s clear reluctance toward trying to draft a sweeping health care bill in the Senate reflects his political instincts: that it’s better to focus on perceived Democratic weaknesses — the left’s push on “Medicare for All” — than to struggle to unify his own party on a plan almost certain to be rebuffed by Senate Democrats and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said he’s eager to move forward on a new health care debate, but he’s not detecting the same enthusiasm in the leadership suites: “I’m not sensing a whole lot.”
While the GOP leader has endorsed efforts to protect pre-existing conditions, McConnell told his caucus on Wednesday he will stick to a message of asking the administration for a plan and focusing on making Democratic measures unpopular, according to attendees.
Soon after, Senate Republicans from across the caucus adopted a similar mantra: Let’s see what the White House proposes.
“The leader is sort of anxious to see what the president and his team put forward in terms of a proposal,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s top deputy. “The good news for us is the Democrat alternative, the so-called Medicare for All plan, the government-run program, is very, very unpopular.”
Marc Short, a top aide to Vice President Mike Pence, said Wednesday on television that the White House will submit a plan to Congress. But Republicans acknowledge that there is essentially no chance that House Democrats will want anything to do with it.
Trump is unbowed.
“The Republican Party will become the Party of Great HealthCare!” Trump tweeted on Thursday afternoon. “Moving forward in Courts and Legislatively!”
Privately, Republicans have been baffled all week about the latest tango with Obamacare, but they’ve tried their best not to be at odds with the president’s unwelcome push.
Asked about the prospects of moving forward with a new vision for health care as requested by the president, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) grinned knowingly, but demurred.
“You can’t quote a smile,” he said.
In fact, simply passing a new health care bill in the Senate before the 2020 election appears nearly impossible. And there may be no need to, since court action appears months away.
Neither chamber is moving forward on a budget that would allow Republicans to skirt the Senate filibuster through the “reconciliation” technique they used in 2017. And there won’t be 60 votes for a comprehensive plan because Democrats won’t cooperate with GOP efforts to replace Obamacare.
Even introducing sweeping legislation could be a political liability for Senate Republicans up for reelection, who would then be forced either to endorse or oppose it. That’s got Republicans embracing a wait-and-see stance to test how serious the president really is about his latest legislative push.
“We were all a little surprised, [McConnell] included,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a close ally of the majority leader. “We know that Ms. Pelosi is going to be a challenge. But it would be even more problematic if we were crosswise with the White House. So that’s why we need to be coordinating.”
Still, Trump’s backing of a lawsuit seeking to dismantle all of Obamacare and come up with a new plan has been welcomed by Republicans who want to promote their own agenda rather than issue takedowns of Democrats’ ideas. And in a new Senate with a handful of senators who didn’t experience the debacle of 2017, some want to start anew.
“I’ve been out there on health care more aggressively than anyone. … We need to see what President Trump means. He’s throwing a lot of stuff out there,” said freshman Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). He added: “We need to do something other than just talk about repealing it.”
While they wait, some committee chairmen are beginning work on targeted health care reforms.
Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said whatever they produce on lowering drug costs and medical bills will not resemble the effort from two years ago to craft a wholesale replacement of the Affordable Care Act.
But that is likely not going to be enough for Trump. The question Republican have now: What is?
“The president’s entitled to his opinions, so I don’t begrudge him that,” Cornyn said. “But what they need to do now is tell us what their plans are.”