Stepping out of the White House after he and most of his fellow Senate Republicans had lunch with President Trump, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to be filled with new confidence about his chamber’s next steps in the effort to make good on the GOP’s seven-year-old promise to eliminate the Affordable Care Act.
Except for one minor detail.
Flanked by two members of the Senate leadership team, Majority Whip John Cornyn and Republican Conference Chairman John Thune, McConnell suggested that the effort to repeal and replace the ACA, which seemed dead only a few hours before, would be revived in the Senate next week. McConnell had been stymied on Tuesday by a small contingent in his own conference who refused to vote to open debate on the GOP’s Better Care Reconciliation Act. When he declared that he would instead have a vote on a straight repeal of the ACA with a two-year delay in implementation, he was again slapped down by his own members.
But then, on Wednesday, he emerged from the White House and said, “We cannot keep the commitment we made to the American people to repeal and replace Obamacare unless we get on the bill,” he said. “So, next week, we’ll be voting to get on the bill.”
So far, so good. The Majority Leader, after a week of embarrassing setbacks at the hands of his own party, sounded like a man who was back in charge.
The only question was which bill was he promising to bring to the floor for debate next week. Was it the most recent version of the Better Care Reconciliation Act, which at least four GOP senators -- more than enough to block the bill -- are vowing to oppose? Or was it a straight repeal bill with a two-year delay?
Unsurprisingly, that was among the first questions McConnell heard from the assembled reporters. And it looked very much as though he didn’t know the answer.
“I think we have two options here,” he said. “There is a large majority in our conference that want to demonstrate the commitment they made to the American people in four straight elections to repeal Obamacare. I think we all agree it’s better to vote repeal and replace. But we could have a vote on either.”
He added, “What I want to disabuse any of you of is the notion that we will not have that vote next week. We’re going to vote on the motion to proceed to the bill next week.” At that point reporters began shouting questions, among them requests one again for clarification: What bill was he talking about?
“We’re going to have a vote on the motion to proceed to the bill next week,” McConnell repeated, before turning to walk away. “Thanks, everybody.”
McConnell’s apparent inability to explain what he expected his chamber to be voting on next week illustrates the chaos into which the debate over the GOP effort to get rid of the ACA has plunged the Republican-led Congress. Less than 24 hours previously, there was almost a sense of relief from some lawmakers that the issue was finally going to be resolved, even if it wasn’t going to result in getting rid of the law.
The senate appeared to have exhausted itself when it came to the ACA repeal. McConnell had already canceled the first two weeks of the month-long August recess, and the list of tasks he had for his members to accomplish during that time did not even include health care reform.
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate Health Committee, even said Tuesday that he was preparing to schedule hearings on how to fix problems with the ACA rather than trying to repeal it.
But on Wednesday, when Trump summoned lawmakers to the White House for lunch, the president demanded that the senators continue working to repeal and replace the ACA, even suggesting that he might be reconsidering his future political support for some of them if they didn’t.
Further, after several weeks of appearing barely engaged in the process, including a dinner earlier this week in which he entertained GOP senators with stories about his recent trip to France, but spoke little about their upcoming health care vote, the president suddenly appeared eager to insert himself into the discussion.
White House staff even raised the possibility that Trump might go on the road, holding rallies to gather public support behind a bill that, so far, has proved to be deeply unpopular with the public.
Outside the White House on Wednesday, McConnell dodged a question about whether he was feeling “whiplash” with health care reform being dragged back to center stage on Capitol Hill by the president. But his non-answer notwithstanding, the president’s newfound determination to up the pressure on lawmakers to repeal and replace the ACA could have a major impact on the legislative schedule as Congress heads toward the end of the fiscal year.
McConnell’s decision to cut into the August recess was made in part to move some presidential nominees to a vote but also to get some important business out of the way, including a must-pass debt ceiling increase and to tee up a 2018 budget resolution, which would allow the GOP-controlled Congress to get to work on a tax reform proposal that they want to attach to a 2018 budget reconciliation measure.
Most of those things won’t be going away, and some of them, like the debt ceiling and the budget, will look increasingly urgent as time goes on.
But Congress these days just isn’t good at doing more than one thing at a time, and if healthcare is back on the front burner, it’s going to crowd out other priorities until lawmakers come to some sort of resolution on it. That could make what already looks to be a legislatively hectic autumn look positively chaotic.