Making Sense Of Senate Republicans

06/26/2017 08:53 am ET Updated Jun 26, 2017
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) listens to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AL) as she speaks to the media, Janu
Yuri Gripas / Reuters
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) listens to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AL) as she speaks to the media, January 27, 2015.

In an era of hucksters and lies, the truth is hard to identify. So are political strategies. But its worth trying. The Senate health care bill is a case in point.

There are traditional political tactics that have survived the test of time and are used by everyone because they’ve worked. If you apply them to the politics of the Senate bill, things clarify.

The question arises because the bill is breathtakingly cruel, widely and deeply unpopular in the country and damages millions who live in states with Republican senators. Most senators, Republicans included, don’t casually embrace that kind of legislation. They had originally promised to substantially ameliorate the House bill, which was bad enough that even President Trump called it “mean.” Instead they produced something that was in many ways even meaner.

The immediate result has been a flight to safety from hard-right ideologues and incumbents in swing states not anxious to jump off an electoral cliff. It appears that there are insufficient votes to pass the thing.

This is not the kind of miscalculation that Majority Leader McConnell is prone to make. He knows his members and he can count.

There is a method to his madness, or rather methods. Both are grounded in the new Republican reality. The Republican base is pro-Trump, anti-compromise, and anti-health care legislation. A Senate bill that retains the core of Obamacare will enrage the beast. Republican primary voters will not countenance such a thing.

For dozens of Republican incumbents you can’t even begin to negotiate a substitute for the House bill until you’ve proved your reliability. By voting yes on the McConnell proposal, they are inoculated against charges of insufficient toughness and cruelty. Only then can something less devastating be considered. Advance the bill knowing it will be defeated.

Fear of the base. Remember, primaries come before general elections. Both left and right are seeking tactics that protect them from the base and allow them to seriously address broader concerns. These strategies have been polled and focus-grouped. They are not new and they’ve worked. Think of the way many Democrats advanced a single-payer health care bill before negotiating Obamacare.

The process can take two forms. Defeat the bill and withdraw it for serious discussions. Or, open the Senate floor to amendments from Senators looking for cover, and buy them back one amendment at a time. The amendment strategy is better for conservatives who want to slice Obamacare into oblivion. They can get to 51 with fewer concessions than what flows from full-throated negotiations. Look to how McConnell sets up the debate this week, especially how he manages floor amendments.

There are limits to this analysis. The hard-right dissenters like Cruz and Paul could be brought back. Concessions could be quietly negotiated with the Heller-Collins-Portman wing. In any case what is going on will be scripted and controlled.

And nobody knows how the House will react to any changes. Both the dwindling flock of moderate House Republicans who voted yes hoping for protection from the Senate, and the surging House firebrands who voted yes for the opposite reason, are not to be relied on for a final vote.

This looming crisis is somewhat easier to explain in terms of traditional legislative political tactics. But the stakes are enormous as are the consequences to sick, and disabled, and poor, and vulnerable Americans. As a spectator sport, it’s fascinating. As an American, it’s sickening.

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