Budget Votes a Preview of 2018 Ad Wars

Democrats are teeing up health care amendments they hope will put Republicans on defense in the midterms.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer
AP Photo/Zach Gibson
Jan. 10, 2017, 8 p.m.

Democrats are using the majority of the budget votes this week to preview their midterm-election strategy: hammering the GOP on health care.

Party leaders plan to force Republicans to take dozens of amendment votes on popular parts of the health care law that Democrats say will be decimated under the GOP’s repeal plans. In doing so, Democrats are essentially scripting their future campaign ads, should voters lose access to popular programs in the repeal.

“This is the beginning of the 2018 cycle,” Sen. Edward Markey said of the votes in a brief interview Tuesday. “If [Republicans] want to have a battle over these issues, we welcome it, because the American people are going to understand now what they’re going to lose when the Affordable Care Act is repealed.”

On Wednesday, the Senate will begin votes on a GOP budget plan that’s a first step toward unraveling President Obama’s signature domestic-policy achievement. The resolution paves the way for subsequent bills to upend the law that are immune from Democratic filibusters.

Focusing the party’s budget-resolution amendments on a single topic is unusual. Traditionally the pile-up of amendment votes ahead of a budget’s passage, known as the vote-a-rama, covers a wide range of topics as members hope to pin the opposing party down for future messaging.

While Democratic leaders say they haven’t mandated the health care focus, the more than two dozen amendments filed by Tuesday afternoon were almost entirely focused on the topic.

“Any Democrat has the right to offer anything they want,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters Tuesday. “But right now, I haven’t seen very many not on the subject of health care.”

Democrats’ No. 2, Sen. Dick Durbin, echoed that sentiment. “We are not really issuing rules, other than we wanted to start with a clear message on ACA, then members decide where we go from there,” Durbin told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday.

But asked whether the votes would provide fodder for 2018 ads against his caucus, Republican Whip John Cornyn downplayed the political consequences.

“That’s what usually happens in vote-a-rama,” he said. “But we’re prepared for that.”

Indeed, House Republicans’ main super PAC released internal polling Monday suggesting they’re already testing messages to use against Democrats on the issue. One Republican Senate strategist also indicated the votes work both ways, saying Republicans will “be keeping an eye on” where potential 2018 targets “come down on all Obamacare-related votes.”

While only eight Republican senators are up for reelection in 2018, GOP campaign strategists are much more concerned about holding onto their majority in the House in the first midterm of Donald Trump’s presidency. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office said in a statement that Republicans are “more concerned with protecting Americans from the consequences of Obamacare than political shenanigans.”

But Democrats hope they have a political opening.

Of the amendments, Democrats say they are most focused on two that were pulled out ahead of the vote-a-rama.

The first, introduced by Sens. Mazie Hirono and Joe Donnelly, sought to prevent Republicans from privatizing Medicare and cutting Medicaid through reconciliation. Republicans batted it aside in a procedural vote that broke mostly along party lines.

The second, introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, mandated that there be “no cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.” It also failed to overcome a procedural challenge.

Both amendments serve to drive a wedge between congressional Republicans and supporters of the president-elect. Trump said repeatedly on the campaign trail that all three programs would not be harmed.

Hirono underlined that point this week alongside Sens. Jeff Merkley, Ben Cardin, and Chris Van Hollen, who serves as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“During the campaign, President-elect Trump promised not to privatize Medicare or cut funding for Medicaid,” Hirono said at a press conference on Monday.

“Today we are giving Senate Republicans an opportunity to reaffirm this promise to the American people. But I am deeply skeptical that Republicans won’t do the right thing because they are committed to repealing the Affordable Care Act,” she said.

Notably, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, the most vulnerable Republican on the midterm map, sided with Democrats on the Hirono amendment. He and moderate Sen. Susan Collins of Maine were the only Republicans to cross the aisle, while Collins was the lone Republican to vote with Democrats on the Sanders measure.

Last week also saw a party-line procedural vote that scuttled Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine’s messaging amendment, which had more than two dozen cosponsors, in opposition to legislation that would “make America sick again” by cutting the number of people with insurance coverage or the scope of benefits.

Look for much more to come when the voting blitz begins in earnest.

“I think it’s important for us to keep them on the defensive, to keep them on their hind feet as this debate goes on tomorrow night,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who plans to file several health care-related amendments.

“I am sure there will be other amendments on non-health-care-related topics, but I think most of the debate tomorrow night will be about the disaster of repealing the Affordable Care Act without a replacement,” Murphy told National Journal.

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