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Senate Republicans Start Obamacare Repeal Process

But GOP lawmakers still have a long way to go to dismantle and replace law

Wyoming Sen. Michael B. Enzi, center, who chairs the Budget Committee, began the process of repealing the 2010 health care law on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Wyoming Sen. Michael B. Enzi, center, who chairs the Budget Committee, began the process of repealing the 2010 health care law on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senate Republicans wasted no time Tuesday setting in motion their plan to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

GOP senators intend to strike large portions of the law while avoiding the threat of a Democratic filibuster through a procedural gambit that expedites Senate consideration of the repeal bill.

But Democrats aren’t going down without a fight.

On Tuesday, Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi started the process known as reconciliation. A fiscal 2017 budget resolution the Wyoming Republican unveiled on the first day of the 115th Congress includes instructions to two House and two Senate committees to craft legislation reducing the deficit by $1 billion over the next ten years.

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To do so, those committees will draft bills repealing portions of the health care law. Senate debate is not subject to cloture, meaning 60 votes are not required to end debate. Republicans, with their 52-seat majority, will be able to advance the repeal without needing any Democratic defections.

One of the committees with jurisdiction is Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and the panel’s chairman, GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said Tuesday that any repeal bill will be crafted “carefully.” Lawmakers have until Jan. 27 to draft the measures. 

But before then, Democrats plan to put Republicans on the record regarding certain provisions of the 2010 health care law.

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said Democrats plan to offer health-related provisions when the Senate votes on amendments to the budget resolution. A marathon vote series known as a vote-a-rama is expected next week.

“We’ll have test votes on some basic issues, which Republicans will have to decide, on pre-existing conditions, on affordable care, on the impact on health care providers, costs and availability,” Durbin told Roll Call. “They’ll have to take positions on these things and it will be hard because they don’t have a replacement.”

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Obama will also be meeting with House and Senate Democrats Wednesday morning to discuss how to counter the repeal effort, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.

One important question concerns timing. Some Senate Republicans have argued that the law should be phased out over time.

Senate GOP Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota said he doesn’t yet have a “hard answer” on when changes to the health care law would take effect, saying the GOP needs to devise a plan to help people transition from the system the law established to a new one.

“Whenever you do anything on this level, on this scale, and put a bunch of new laws and new rules into effect, it’s going to take some time to sort it all out,” Thune said. He later added: “You got to have a transition period. What exactly that time amount is, I’m not sure. I think that’s still in the process of being debated.” 

Alexander said work on crafting a replacement would begin immediately though he added that lawmakers were “still talking” about the timing for ending portions of the law. 

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“It may take several years to fully implement it, but there’s no need to wait several years to make our decisions about what to do,” Alexander said. “In my view, we should do that within the next several months.”

Democrats have blasted the GOP for repealing the law without having a plan to replace it.

“It’s not acceptable to repeal the law, throw our health care system into chaos, and then leave the hard work for another day,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said in a Tuesday floor speech.

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Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said a likely path is to repeal the health care law and then begin working with Democrats on a bipartisan replacement plan. 

“It would be good that once we repeal Obamacare that we begin the process of building consensus again,” Cornyn told reporters Tuesday. “That used to be the way we got things done. Surely, we can do much better than Obamacare and we ought to invite our Democratic colleagues to work with us.”

Durbin stopped short of saying that the GOP’s dismantling of the law would poison the well and hinder bipartisan solutions.

“It makes it hard,” the Illinois Democrat said. “But you know, the bottom line is if Obamacare is going away, I think that’s a serious mistake, but I want to find a replacement that is good or better.”

Senators acknowledged an anticipated grinding health policy fight that could rival the one that preceded enactment of the health care law in 2010.

“It took six years or so to get us in this mess,” Cornyn said. “And it’s going to take us a little while to unwind it and replace it.”

John T. Bennett and Alex Roarty contributed to this report.