Conservative Groups Pose Little Risk to Obamacare-Repeal Defectors

Despite threats, the senators who publicly defied leadership are mostly immune from challenges.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
July 18, 2017, 8 p.m.

Conservative groups that spent millions electing Republicans to repeal Obamacare have little recourse against the handful of GOP senators holding up their dream of finally gutting former President Obama’s signature health care law.

After months of negotiations, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell scrapped plans to vote on legislation to repeal and replace the law at the same time, and he is pressing forward with a straight repeal bill that the chamber already passed in 2015.

But thanks to a handful of moderate GOP senators—including some who received millions of dollars of campaign help from these groups—the 2015 bill appeared all but dead by the end of the day Tuesday, failing to garner even the same support it did the last time it was sent to the president’s desk. McConnell said he still plans to hold a procedural vote on the measure next week, but there is little reason to think it can be revived.

While conservatives on Tuesday were already vowing punishment for Republicans who stood in the way of an upcoming vote to repeal the law, it’s unclear what leverage they’ll have to do so against a handful of senators who remain popular in their respective states and aren’t up for reelection for several more years.

The conservative Heritage Action for America said Tuesday that conservatives were “justifiably frustrated” with “the obstinance of their more liberal colleagues,” while Senate Conservatives Fund President Ken Cuccinelli vowed to “identify, recruit, and fund conservative challengers against Republican senators who vote against repeal.”

But of the four definite no votes on Tuesday, Sen. Susan Collins voted against the same bill in 2015 and is widely expected to seek the governor’s office in Maine in 2018, instead of reelection. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito is not up for reelection in West Virginia until 2020.

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, whom the Koch network spent more than $10 million reelecting in 2016, won’t face reelection for five more years. That will make it easier for him to withstand any possible criticism from President Trump, who plans to hold a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, next week.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski isn’t up for reelection in Alaska until 2022, and seven years ago she proved her political might by winning a write-in campaign in the general election after losing a primary challenge.

“My interest is what the people in Alaska are saying, and what I can tell you the people in Alaska are saying, because I’m listening very carefully to them, is they are worried about what they’re seeing with their costs. … I don’t worry about what outside groups say and do,” Murkowski told National Journal Tuesday outside of the GOP caucus lunch.

Republicans who haven’t said whether they’d support the bill include moderate Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada. Heller is expected to face one of the toughest reelection races this cycle, but he hasn’t benefited from conservative outside groups in the past, and he represents a state that’s benefited greatly from the Medicaid expansion. Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who received help from the Kochs in his 2014 race, could be in the most danger of a primary threat, but he won’t face reelection for four more years.

While Republican strategists largely agree that failure to make good on their repeal promise could create a political nightmare for the party, the issue cuts differently among the party’s most vulnerable members.

Health care in particular has put some lawmakers in the crosshairs of what the party wants versus what is good for their base. “They have to make a choice between what’s good for their district, state, and general electoral interests and the good of the party,” said Molly Reynolds, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. Reynolds said it could be worse for individual members to have to handle the effects of such legislation in their state. But blocking the effort will send vulnerable members home empty-handed.

And while the vast majority of GOP senators want to see the party pass the legislation, leaders on Tuesday appeared ready to move on to other issues if the repeal vote fails.

“I think we’ll have to see what happens,” McConnell told reporters. If the bill fails, he said, committees will begin hearing about possible solutions to the insurance crisis, and “we’ll be moving on to comprehensive tax reform” and “infrastructure.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch pressed his colleagues to move forward with the measure. “Was the vote in 2015 just a political stunt? Was it just pure partisanship? I know some of our Democratic colleagues claimed that was the case. Were they right?” Hatch said in prepared remarks.

“I sure hope not,” he continued. “On the contrary, I sincerely hope that any member of the Senate who voted for the 2015 bill and who has spent the last seven and a half years pledging to repeal Obamacare hasn’t suddenly changed their position now that the vote has a chance to actually matter.”

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