When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested last week that he would be open to working with Democrats if the Republican Obamacare alternative fails, it caught the attention of some very interested observers on the other side of the Capitol.
With their own majority at risk, House Republicans are now anxiously watching to see whether their Senate counterparts can pull off an Obamacare-repeal bill. Although there have been no formal discussions among House GOP leaders about McConnell’s comments, they loom large over the next few weeks.
Either Senate Republicans will pass their health care bill or they won’t, and McConnell will survive either way. McConnell, after all, is not up for reelection, faces no chance of a leadership challenge, and is in little danger of losing his majority, simply because so many more Democrats than Republicans are up this cycle. House Speaker Paul Ryan, on the other hand, cannot rest so easy.
House leaders have taken some solace in the fact that they were able to pass an Obamacare rewrite through their chamber, but the burden of congressional failure to finish the process will arguably land at the feet of those in the lower body.
Congressional campaign watchers already believe Democrats have a legitimate shot at winning back the House. Those chances could rise if Republicans leave their base disillusioned by failing to deliver on the single biggest campaign promise of the last seven years—whether or not the blame lies ultimately with one chamber or the other.
And although Ryan seems safe atop the Republican Conference now, it is hard to imagine the Right sticking with him for long if he oversees the capitulation of the GOP to their nemesis of government-administered health care. Former Speaker John Boehner, after all, never quite lived down his admission that “Obamacare is the law of the land”—and his willingness to cut deals with Democrats.
McConnell broaching the idea of going down that route is something no House GOP leader wants to hear.
Still, there seems to be a lack of consensus about what exactly McConnell meant. Some House leaders heard his comments as an idle threat aimed at spurring his ranks into action; if Republican senators don’t come to an agreement, McConnell seemed to be saying, he will have to do the unthinkable and turn to Democrats for help, according to a leadership staffer.
Coming from a man known for choosing his words carefully, these particular ones seemed more for posturing than for planning, goes that line of thought.
“We passed a bill and we expect them to pass a bill too,” said one high-ranking Republican House member. “A government bailout of a failing program that’s in a death spiral would not be well received on our side of the building.”
Others saw a more worrisome possibility. Some leadership staff have discussed the possibility of McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer crafting an Obamacare deal and jamming it on the House. If Obamacare markets are failing and that bill is the only one out there, there would be tremendous pressure on the House to take it up, according to another aide.
On the other hand, with a massive ideological gulf between the two parties on this issue, it is hard to conceptualize a health bill that both Schumer and McConnell could stomach. So that leads some to a more gracious interpretation of McConnell’s comments.
Some Republicans believe he was simply stating the obvious: If insurers continue to pull out of Obamacare markets and the Senate can’t pass its bill, it will be Republican leaders who will have to shepherd through Congress bills propping up individual marketplaces or the law as a whole, or risk being the ones presiding over the collapse of the health care system.
Though President Trump likes to muse about allowing the system to collapse, Republican leaders know that is not an option, as a matter of both policy and politics. And yet making an about-face from repealing the law and replacing it with their own policy to fixing the existing law would be a turn many of their members would simply refuse to take.
That would put Democrats in the driver’s seat, as Republicans would automatically need their votes to pass anything. And if that’s the case, Republicans can forget about anything remotely resembling a repeal.
“We always said we would be willing to work with them as long as they dropped the repeal and dropped the sabotage,” House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone said. “Presumably it would be something that would help get more insurers in the market.”
Getting even 100 Republicans on such a bill would be a challenge, however. House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows signaled Wednesday that he and his group would offer little help in propping up the law if the Senate can’t pass a repeal.
“To suggest that Chuck Schumer is actually going to help out on a repeal bill defies not only his own rhetoric but his commitment to his own constituency,” Meadows said. “So are we going to help fix Obamacare? The answer to that is no.”
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