GOP leadership fights effort to tie Obamacare repeal to tax overhaul, budget bill

Senate Republican leaders are warning rank-and-file senators that calls to attach a health-care bill to an upcoming budget bill could fatally divide Republicans and cripple plans to pass a GOP-written tax bill by the end of this year.

The warning comes as a growing group of Republicans, frustrated by the Senate’s apparent failure to pass legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, are calling on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to keep hope alive by attaching a health-care measure to the fiscal 2018 budget bill. But McConnell and his deputies worry that old divisions over health care could taint the debate and are insisting that GOP members stay focused on tax cuts.

“We’re not going to do that,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). “It would screw up the budget.”

GOP leaders are still grappling with whether to hold a vote this week on a health-care measure sponsored by Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) despite it apparently lacking the votes to pass.

The Republican leaders have been eager to move on from their repeated failures on health care in hopes of passing a tax bill that will demonstrate their ability to govern. McConnell and other GOP leaders believe that the 52 Republican senators can unite over taxes and salvage a year that is absent any major legislative victories. They plan to attach the tax measures to the budget bill, which under special Senate rules could be passed by the Republican majority without help or input from the Democrats. But divisions over what should be included in the budget bill could derail those plans.

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Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was among the first to insist that GOP dreams of cutting taxes shouldn’t be used as an excuse to abandon Republicans’ long-standing pledge to gut President Barack Obama’s signature health-care law.

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“There’s no reason you couldn’t do health care and taxes at the same time,” Paul said. “You can do it every year. You’ll have at least one shot every year that Republicans control the Senate.”

Several other senators, including Graham and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) agreed and have threatened to vote against any budget that doesn’t include an opportunity to dismantle the ACA. If that trio sticks together, they would ensure that McConnell does not have the votes to pass a budget.

Republican leaders set out Monday to warn against that scenario. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said that any attempt to combine health care and taxes on the next budget risks tainting tax discussions with old divisions over health care.

“I wouldn’t support that,” Cornyn said Monday.” I think we should give health care our shot and then move on to taxes. I don’t think we should mix those up.”

But support for the idea grew Tuesday, particularly among conservative groups such as the House Freedom Caucus. At a roundtable with reporters hosted by the Heritage Foundation, several Freedom Caucus members argued that there might be a way to include health care in the 2018 budget reconciliation — though none knew how, exactly.

“September 30th is a fake deadline,” argued Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who regularly votes against the leadership. “Absolutely false. You can do it on the next reconciliation vehicle. People say you can only do one thing at a time in reconciliation? Go back and look at the Obamacare reconciliation bill.”

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the caucus, said he wanted to see whether health care could be added to the package without a risk of sinking the entire tax effort.

“We’d be in favor of including them in the 2018 reconciliation instructions if you can keep them separate,” Meadows said. “Since we have fumbled at least twice on health care, to include it and make tax reform contingent on us passing health care, I wouldn’t be in favor of that.”

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After the House GOP’s conference meeting, Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), the chair of the Budget Committee, said that adding health care to the next package was “up for consideration,” but she wouldn’t say how seriously.

Keeping the health-care effort alive is appealing to a wide swath of Republicans in Congress who have been assailed by voters for failing to repeal Obamacare. But the party has been unable to agree on an acceptable alternative, and many Republicans worry that they are hopelessly divided on the issue. Many fear that continuing to fight over health care could permanently damage the party by exposing internal differences that could imperil other legislative priorities, particularly taxes.

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“I’m going to always be in favor of anything we can do to repeal the major parts of Obamacare, and if somebody slips it into tax reform, sure, I’d vote for it,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) “It could possibly hurt a Republican-only tax reform [bill]. We couldn’t get the votes we needed on Obamacare.”

Mike DeBonis and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.