The Senate Republicans have been engaged in a shameful exercise.
Few of them will step forward to defend the substance of the Cassidy-Graham bill, the latest effort to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. It’s a terribly cynical bill which ravages Medicaid and leaves current recipients of Obamacare open to the elimination or weakening of protections for those with pre-existing conditions and to the return of lifetime caps on coverage.
That alone should have doomed this bill. However, Republicans are adding insult to Senate procedure and sensible public policy decision-making to the injury.
Sen. John McCain Friday announced he would oppose this bill. That places Cassidy-Graham on life support and the plug is likely to be pulled.
The McCain decision should not have come as a surprise. McCain courageously opposed the previous futile effort called the “skinny repeal” and it’s hard to see how Sen. McCain could have supported Cassidy-Graham.
In voting against the skinny repeal, McCain declared, “Let's trust each other. Let's return to regular order. We've been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle. That's an approach that's been employed by both sides, mandating legislation from the top down, without any support from the other side, with all the parliamentary maneuvers that requires.”
On that score, the Cassidy-Graham bill is even worse.
Firstly, there have not been more than perfunctory hearings in the committee of jurisdiction and the exact language of the bill which reportedly will be voted on next week is not known.
Secondly, there will be no adequate CBO scoring of the bill. The non-partisan, highly credible Congressional Budget Office will not have had time, given the rush to pass this bill, to do the necessary analysis. Without a CBO score, senators voting on the bill will have no idea how many Americans will be forced off health insurance and just what the effects on the budget will be.
Thirdly, the Cassidy-Graham bill may have little debate on the Senate floor and will not be amendable.
Finally, all of this objectionably inadequate procedure will be crammed into an abbreviated process up against a fixed deadline. This rush is even more deplorable.
This is no way to legislate. So, why is there a deadline?
Because the Republicans decided that they wanted to legislate on a one-party basis, ignoring Democratic input, they are using (I would argue abusing) the process under the 1974 Budget Act so that they can pass the bill with only 50 Republican votes (and the vote of Vice-President Pence to break a tie). This ironically is called the reconciliation process.
In order to adopt this bill as a reconciliation bill, there must be prior “reconciliation instructions” in the Budget Resolution to repeal and replace Obamacare. Such instructions were adopted as a part of the FY2017 Budget Resolution. The Senate Parliamentarian has made it clear that those instructions will expire at the end of FY2017 on September 30, just days from now. This judgment makes common sense.
The reconciliation bill was on the Senate floor when last we saw it in July when Sen. McCain killed the skinny repeal. Majority Leader McConnell will make a non-debatable motion to return to that bill.
Once the Senate is on the reconciliation bill, the Cassidy-Graham bill will be offered as a new substitute amendment. Reconciliation bills are limited to twenty hours of debate. Little or no debate time remains. The normal prerogatives of the minority in the Senate (unlimited debate and the ability to amend) are circumvented by this process. A vote will occur almost immediately.
This whole effort may very well fail. In addition to McCain’s opposition, Sen. Rand Paul has said he will not be “bribed or bullied” into supporting Cassidy-Graham. He tweeted, “No one is more opposed to Obamacare than I am…the current bill is not repeal.” Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is likely to oppose it. She has said that it would not be beneficial to Mainers. According to the Portland Press Herald, she added, “I don’t think you make fundamental changes in a program that has been on the books for 50 years, the Medicaid program, and that serves our most vulnerable citizens, without holding a single Senate hearing on it.”
The other potential vote in opposition is that of Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. She opposed the skinny repeal and is undecided now. However, even if Murkowski votes for the bill, it will fail unless Collins, Paul, or McCain also votes for it.
Majority Leader McConnell could change his mind and decide not to bring the bill back to the floor if he believes he does not have the votes. In any event, it is likely dead for this Congress. John McCain’s conscientious stand may have saved the GOP from itself by stopping this shameful legislation in its tracks.
Richard A. Arenberg is a Visiting Lecturer in Political Science and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. He worked for Sens. Paul Tsongas (D-MA), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME) for 34 years. He served on the Senate Iran-Contra Committee in 1987. Arenberg was co-author of the award-winning "Defending the Filibuster: Soul of the Senate" named “Book of the Year in Political Science” by Foreword Reviews in 2012. A 2nd edition was published in 2014. The U.S. Senate Historical Office published “Richard A. Arenberg: Oral History Interviews” in 2011. He serves on the Board of Directors of Social Security Works and the Social Security Education Fund. He is an affiliate at the Taubman Center for American Politics & Policy. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Providence Journal, and The Boston Globe. He is a Contributor at The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @richarenberg.