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Bipartisan Health Care Talks Shut Down Amid Rush to Repeal

Talks by Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray sidelined

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has halted a bipartisan effort to stabilize the health insurance market as Senate Republicans aggressively seek to repeal the 2010 health care law. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has halted a bipartisan effort to stabilize the health insurance market as Senate Republicans aggressively seek to repeal the 2010 health care law. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A bipartisan effort to stabilize the health insurance markets suffered a potentially fatal blow Tuesday as Senate Republicans kicked into high gear their attempt to repeal the 2010 health care law.

Facing a Sept. 30 deadline to utilize the 2017 budget reconciliation process that would allow passage of the health care legislation without having to worry about the filibuster, GOP leaders and Vice President Mike Pence lobbied their rank and file to pass legislation spearheaded by Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. It would repeal the 2010 law’s mandates for coverage, curtail the Medicaid program and block-grant money to the states to construct their own health care programs. 

“I’ve never felt better about where we’re at,” Graham said about the measure after the GOP’s Tuesday lunch.

He has the full support of the Republican leadership.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has committed to bringing the measure up, even without a full estimate of its cost and coverage effects from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Speaker Paul D. Ryan has signaled that if the measure passes the Senate, the House would vote on it.

Bipartisan bust

It was with this backdrop that Tennessee GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander announced Tuesday he was unable to broker an agreement on a bill with Washington Democrat Patty Murray to stabilize the insurance markets, effectively killing the bipartisan effort. 

The announcement by Alexander, who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, was the clearest signal yet that the GOP conference is charging forward with the Graham-Cassidy measure to dramatically reshape the U.S. health care system.

“Senator Murray and I had hoped to agree early this week on a limited, bipartisan plan to stabilize 2018 premiums in the individual health insurance market that we could take to Senate leaders by the end of the month. During the last month, we have worked hard and in good faith, but have not found the necessary consensus among Republicans and Democrats to put a bill in the Senate leaders’ hands that could be enacted,” Alexander said in a statement.

There were other signs the effort was in trouble on Tuesday; at the same time Ryan was throwing his support behind the Graham-Cassidy measure, he signaled the House would not take up the Alexander-Murray bill.

That was despite the bipartisan effort picking up support outside of Congress, with a group of 10 governors ranging from Alaska’s independent Gov. Bill Walker to Ohio’s Republican Gov. John Kasich to Colorado’s Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper writing to Senate leaders to say the Graham-Cassidy measure should be set aside and Congress should focus on the Alexander-Murray effort to stabilize the markets. 

Alexander — who bucked some in his party to try to find consensus with Murray, the HELP panel’s top Democrat — was facing pressure from both sides of the aisle.

Doubts remain

Despite Graham’s optimism, it is unclear whether his legislation has the support of 50 Republicans, the amount needed to pass under the fast-track budget reconciliation process that Republicans are using.

The three Republican lawmakers who killed the previous effort — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John McCain of Arizona — have yet to publicly state their position on the current proposal. In addition, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul has said he opposes it, and Graham has said he thinks getting his support is a lost cause. 

Still, Graham, who returned to Washington on Tuesday for the GOP lunch with Pence from the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, is talking up its chances. 

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think we could get 50,” he said in the Capitol. 

The decision by Alexander to abandon the bipartisan health care effort is likely to enrage Democrats who welcomed the opportunity to work across the aisle after being shut out of the process for much of this year.

Murray had made major concessions over the past few days, opting to allow what an aide referred to as “significant state flexibility” measures in the package.

“We identified significant common ground and I made some tough concessions to move in Chairman Alexander’s direction,” Murray said in a statement. “I am disappointed that Republican leaders have decided to freeze this bipartisan approach and are trying to jam through a partisan Trumpcare bill. But I am confident that we can reach a deal if we keep working together — and I am committed to getting that done.”

The effort was viewed as a long-shot attempt from the beginning, though senators from both sides of the aisle would not rule out the possibility that Murray and Alexander, who have reached a number of bipartisan agreements on substantial legislation, could do so again.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this story.

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