A bunch of Republican senators are frustrated with leadership plans to pass a sweeping health care bill with almost no public deliberation.
In fact, they are so frustrated that they seem to have forgotten it would take just three of them to force a slower, more open process.
The latest GOP senator to express concern is Marco Rubio of Florida. Toward the end of his appearance Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” his discussion with host Jake Tapper turned to health care legislation ― specifically, the bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
When the House passed the American Health Care Act (AHCA), its version of the legislation, Republican senators were quick to decry both the bill and the debate that led to it. They said the House had acted brashly ― hatching legislation behind closed doors and then rushing to vote before the public could get a good look at it. Republican senators also said the proposal itself was too harsh ― breaking promises to protect people with pre-existing conditions and taking insurance away from 23 million people, according to Congressional Budget Office predictions.
Now it’s clear that the Senate process won’t play out so differently after all.
A group of GOP senators has been writing the bill in private. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plans to take legislation directly to the Senate floor, where it will most likely get just 20 hours of formal discussion. Neither the Finance Committee nor the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee ― the two with jurisdiction ― plan to hold hearings. (In 2009 and 2010, Democrats held literally hundreds of hours of hearings, as part of a process for the Affordable Care Act that took more than a year to complete.)
The Senate legislation itself is likely to look resemble that House bill so many GOP senators insisted they couldn’t tolerate. It might propose to unwind the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid a little more slowly and offer marginally more financial assistance to lower-income and older consumers, but overall, the impact of the bill would be nearly the same. Many millions of people would lose health insurance, and millions more would lose consumer protections that guarantee access for people with serious medical problems.
Rubio, asked about all of this on Sunday, vowed that the process would be open:
That bill has to at least have a vote in the Senate, and I hope it’s a vote that allows plenty of time for debate, analysis, and changes. And input.
And if that’s the process we follow, it will be fine. If it is an effort to rush from a small group of people straight to the floor in an up-or-down vote, that would be a problem. The Senate rules are not conducive to that sort of action.
As Topher Spiro, the former Senate aide now at the Center for American Progress pointed out on Twitter, Rubio’s vow is essentially meaningless. The Senate rules for the debate McConnell envisions would give all senators a chance to weigh in, but it would be during that brief, 20-hour window of final debate ― this, for legislation that would affect one-sixth of the economy and the insurance arrangements for tens of millions of Americans.
Last week, Vox published a series of interviews with eight Republican senators. It was a remarkable piece of journalism, in that Vox reporters asked the senators what might seem like the simplest of questions ― what they knew about the contents of the emerging Senate legislation and what they hoped it would achieve.
The answers were vague and in a few cases nonsensical, and several lawmakers, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), were openly critical of the way the legislation is coming together.
Is it the framework of the House-passed bill and then we’re filling in our own details? I don’t know. We just don’t know. My constituents expect me to know, and if we had utilized the process that goes through a committee, I would be able to answer not only your questions but my constituents’ questions.
At least a dozen other Republican senators have made similarly critical comments in the last few months, as their party’s health legislation has taken shape. Republicans have only 52 seats in the Senate, and because it will take 50 to pass legislation, McConnell would have to listen if at least three of them demanded a change. As Sarah Kliff, also of Vox, wrote late last week, “The health care bill only gets to remain secret if Republican senators allow it to. They could force it into the sunlight if that was their desire.”
But so far that desire has not been there. The process is unfolding just as McConnell wants it to, the bill is sounding more and more like its House counterpart, and all of these Republican senators are going along.
It’s enough to make you wonder whether they’re really all that worried and upset ― or whether they are just complaining to the cameras in order to duck political responsibility for what they know is an unpopular, ill-advised piece of legislation.