McConnell's Big Gamble

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is about to make a big legislative throw of the dice Thursday, when he (finally) unveils the super-secret Senate Republican health care bill not only to the public, but also to the rest of his own caucus. It’s a pretty big gamble for McConnell, since he has no way of knowing if he’s got the votes to pass it or not. Either way ― whether successful or not ― McConnell says the effort will be over by the Independence Day holiday. Either they pass the bill, or the Senate will just move on to other agenda items.

McConnell has taken the drafting of the bill entirely upon himself, at this point. He hasn’t yet gotten his own caucus to agree on any coherent plan to repeal and replace Obamacare. Please remember, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed a full seven years ago. In all that time, Republicans have never gotten behind a single replacement plan, so it’s not all that surprising they can’t manage to do so now. A group of 13 Republican senators was supposed to come up with a draft bill this year, but even this small a group could not agree on what to put in it. So McConnell just took over the process entirely. Senator Mike Lee ― one of those 13 senators ― just posted a video complaining that even he had no idea what will be in tomorrow’s bill. So at this point, whatever is released tomorrow will have to logically be called “McConnellcare.” His will be the only fingerprints on it, so it seems fitting.

Will McConnellcare be any better than Ryancare (the House bill that has been resoundingly rejected by the public at large)? Will it, in the words of Donald Trump, be less “mean”? We’ll all find out, starting tomorrow.

Of course, McConnell may not see this as a particularly risky gamble. He knows that even if the Senate passes a bill, it will have to be reconciled with Ryancare in a House-Senate joint effort, which may prove to be impossible. And if it doesn’t pass, McConnell will at least be able to say: “Hey, we tried,” and push any blame for the bill’s failure off on whichever individual Republicans vote against it. That’s not exactly a political win/win situation for McConnell, but it’s pretty close.

There are a handful of GOP senators that may well indeed vote against whatever McConnellcare bill emerges tomorrow. There’s a real divide between those Republican senators who care that hundreds of thousands of their constituents got health insurance through Obamacare and don’t want to see them tossed aside for purely ideological reasons, and those Republicans who have never even bought into the idea of the “replace” part in the first place ― people like Rand Paul, who just want a clean repeal of Obamacare with no other federal involvement in the health insurance industry whatsoever. This is the divide that so far has been impossible to bridge within the Republican caucus, and this is also one of the reasons McConnell is delaying the release of his bill’s text as long as possible. Not everyone is going to be applauding the bill (no matter what’s in it) even within his own party, and McConnell knows it.

The pressure on Republican senators is going to be intense, over the next week. On one side, there will be calls to pass anything, so they can go campaign on finally replacing Obamacare (which they’ve been promising their voters for the past seven years). On the other hand, senators represent entire states, not just cherry-picked Republican House districts, and many of them are already aware how unpopular Ryancare has proven to be. Paul Ryan did a masterful job of twisting arms in the House to get his bill passed, but that’s going to be a lot harder in the Senate, for three basic reasons.

The first is that McConnell has already annoyed a large number of his Republicans by the secretive process he’s attempting to use to jam a revision of one-sixth of the American economy through the Senate. One week from the public unveiling until they vote on it? That doesn’t leave a lot of time for discussion or debate, and senators care about such things more than House members do.

The second big reason arm-twisting in the Senate is tougher is that only one-third of them are up for re-election next year. The others are either three or five years away from facing the voters (who have notoriously short attention spans as it is). So they feel less pressure, by design.

And the third big reason McConnell is going to have a tough time is the slim margin he’s got for passing the bill. All it will take is three GOP senators deciding to vote no, and the bill will die. Rand Paul is probably already in this category. That means only two other Republicans have to review the McConnellcare bill and decide they simply cannot support it for one reason or another.

So the question will become whether the pressure from the party apparatus to “chalk up a victory ― any victory will do!” is greater than any three GOP senators’ resolve not to vote for a bill that probably will have many of the House bill’s shortcomings. This could mean Tea Party senators who decide McConnellcare is too generous as well as moderate senators who recoil from how many millions of people’s lives would be negatively affected. Issues that have barely been talked about could become major roadblocks, such as whether McConnellcare defunds Planned Parenthood, or whether it includes money to address the opioid crisis. These are key sticking points for individual Republican senators, but there are also other Republicans on the other side of these issues as well. This is why this needle has been so hard to thread up until now ― it’s not just how many people will lose insurance or how much Medicaid will be slashed. There are a whole host of issues that may become just as contentious.

McConnell is going to sound quite confident when he unveils the bill tomorrow, that’s pretty much of a given. He’s going to announce that he’s successfully bridged the divide within his own party, and that McConnellcare is the best thing to come along since sliced bread. Beyond this posturing, though, I wonder whether this isn’t all an exercise in futility for him.

If three or more Republicans stand firm against McConnellcare, then it will be voted down next week. The usual option in such a situation is that McConnell would quietly withdraw the vote from the schedule after getting a whipcount, in order to save both himself and the Republican Party some embarrassment. But it sure seems like McConnell is ruling this option out. If he personally pulls the bill and no vote is taken, then a whole lot of blame is going to be laid at his door. But if he holds the vote and the bill fails, then he can deflect the blame to the individuals who vote no. Politically, at this point, that’s a safer option for McConnell.

Holding a vote that fails would also allow McConnell to do what he really wants to do anyway, which is to put the whole fiasco in his rearview mirror and move the Senate on to other pressing business. This may be the whole point of the exercise, in fact. A week or so ago, the members of the GOP group trying to hammer out a bill were beginning to walk back expectations that the bill would get a vote by the end of June. If McConnell truly thought it was possible to achieve consensus by giving them a few more weeks, he probably would have done so. But he didn’t. He kept to his artificial self-imposed schedule anyway. This may signify that, to McConnell, the Senate legislative calendar is more important than continuing on the wild goose chase of finding the perfect Republican health care bill. He seems to be saying: “If it’s going to fail, then it’s going to fail, so let’s just get it over with and move on.”

Whatever happens, tomorrow is going to kick off one of the most intense weeks in the Senate in a long time. The Congressional Budget Office score of the bill is expected early next week, which will only add fuel to this fiery debate. There won’t be much time to cut any deals or hammer out any compromises within the Republican caucus. The situation is basically going to be McConnellcare ― take it or leave it. The pressure from all sides will be enormous on every Republican senator.

Buckle up, everyone, because it’s going to be a wild ride, that’s for sure.

Chris Weigant

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