For Republican leaders in the Senate, watching their first two attempts to pass a health care bill this week fail in floor votes must have been extra painful as they plainly knew in advance what was likely to happen. The bad news is that they have a few more days — if not weeks — of public futility in front of them.
Before the GOP’s week of health care hell began, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had been pushing for a final vote on some sort of reform legislation, even though the odds of passage looked bleak. On July 12, he promised that the Senate would have wrapped up the health care debate by the end of what is now last week.
Then President Trump stepped in. Despite the poor prospects for success, and despite senators’ growing sense that the legislative clock for other vital legislation, including a federal budget resolution and a debt limit increase, was ticking down, the president demanded that they take another run at passing a health care bill.
The result, at best, is the Senate will spend this week and possibly part of next week burning off 20 hours of debate time and holding votes on amendments that have little chance of adoption, and bills that have virtually no chance of passage.
In other words, they will almost certainly be wasting time that McConnell would rather spend on other legislative priorities. And then there is the matter of how many taxpayer dollars are being burned this week on a seemingly impossible mission.
From a simple dollars and cents perspective, the Senate’s unproductive week will cost taxpayers a minimum of $8.5 million, according to a Fiscal Times back-of-the-envelope calculation — and probably a lot more.
Almost all of the 100 senators receive salaries of $174,000 a year, or the equivalent of $3,346 a week. Toss in an additional $11,157 a week for the salaries of the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders and the President Pro Tempore, who receive slightly more than rank and file senators, and the total weekly payroll for senators is $345,757.
Every member of Congress is entitled to a Representational Allowance for official expenses including personal staff and office equipment. The allowance amounted to $944,671 a year for each member, according to the Congressional Research Service. That works out to $1.8 million a week for all 100 senators.
A separate expense account for official personnel and office expenses provides the lawmakers with an average allowance of $3.3 million a year, which is the equivalent of $6.35 million a week for all 100 senators. That goes for legislative assistance, administrative and clerical assistance and office expenses.
Finally, taxpayers are paying an additional $16,538 a week in salaries to the Secretary of the Senate, the Sergeant at Arms, the Door Keeper, the Legislative Council and the Parliamentarian.
There are scores of other related costs, including food, transportation and operational costs, but this gives a rough approximation of what all the wheel-spinning over Obamacare repeal is costing.
After a version of the Better Care Reconciliation Act couldn’t muster a majority on Tuesday night, and a so-called “repeal-and-delay” proposal was defeated on Wednesday afternoon. Things don’t look much better for other versions of ACA repeal that have been floated by the GOP leadership, and even the measure that now has the most chance of actually passing the Senate can’t look especially appetizing to McConnell & Co.
That would be the so-called “skinny repeal” of Obamacare, which would do away with that law’s individual and employer health insurance mandates, and the medical device tax. Health care experts warn that the skinny repeal proposal would cause the insurance markets to crater and premiums to jump, but its supporters are insisting that it isn’t intended to become law. Rather, it’s a placeholder that can be treated as an amended version of the House-passed American Health Care Act, allowing the House and Senate to go to a conference committee to hammer out a final bill.
But even if the skinny repeal were to pass the Senate, which is far from a sure thing, the challenges facing lawmakers in a conference committee would be daunting, to say the least. The House, having passed a very conservative health care bill with the grudging support of its furthest right members (who didn’t believe it was conservative enough) isn’t likely to agree to something that drastically waters down its version.
And the Senate Republicans, whose members include Republicans in swing districts who view the House bill as far too draconian, won’t be in a hurry to accommodate the demands of far right House members whose seats are among the safest in the Congress.
While it’s never certain how legislative battles are going to turn out, the likeliest result of the extended debate over health care reform is the House and Senate accomplishing little except running time off the clock in an already constricted legislative session.