Sen. Susan Collins will celebrate July Fourth within view of the Canadian border, at a remote Northeastern Maine town’s annual parade. Sen. Lisa Murkowski will appear on the other end of the continent in an old timber town on an isolated Alaskan island.
These two Republican senators, critical swing votes in the debate over health-care legislation, are not exactly rushing into the public spotlight to engage their constituents on the controversial plan and their own decision-making about the proposal.
Then again, at least they have released information about where they will be. That’s more than most Senate Republicans have done at the start of a 10-day break wrapped around the nation’s Independence Day celebration. This creates the belief among liberal activists that Republicans are trying to hide, which in turn primes every public moment to become that much more confrontational.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wanted to avoid this by passing the Better Care Reconciliation Act by Friday, believing that Republican senators might have faced some heat back home over the coming week — but then would have been able to focus on many other issues for the rest of the summer.
Instead of reaching agreement, rank-and-file Republicans demanded more time to review the proposal and to try to negotiate more compromises, with a final vote not likely until late July.
That timeline will run right up against the start of the traditional summer break, with Congress scheduled to leave Washington July 28 and not return until after Labor Day. This is exactly what McConnell was trying to avoid, a scenario in which Republicans replay the same political summer that Democrats endured in 2009 as they delayed and delayed consideration of what eventually became the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
The longer the issue remained in the public sphere, the more it consumed every interaction Democrats had at home with their constituents. The month of rowdy town halls in August 2009 in particular created exactly the optics McConnell was trying to sidestep this time around.
“It would have been better if we had been able to finish it,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) lamented as he left the Senate Thursday, pondering the likelihood that the rest of the summer would focus on this one politically troubling issue. “I’m just saying, if I had my druthers, I wish we had gone ahead and gotten the product agreed to.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), another holdout on the legislation, got the first dose of what’s likely when senators hold public events for the foreseeable future. On Friday, in Baton Rouge, Cassidy tried to discuss flood relief — a critical issue in his state — only to be interrupted with chants of “health care, health care.”
Democrats, who are unified in their opposition to the GOP effort to repeal Obamacare, are watching in amazement as the Republicans handle the issue in the same political circumstances they faced eight years ago. They contend that the issue will only get worse for Republicans and could lead to more bad coverage, just as Democrats faced in 2009.
“It could very well, I sure hope so,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who was the House majority whip in charge of rounding up votes for the legislation back then.
Some Republicans dismiss worries about timing. Rewriting the laws governing health care, they say, will always be a laborious process because the issue is so prominent in people’s lives.
These Republicans say they want their colleagues to focus less on the process and instead get the policy right.
“No matter what you do, you eventually go home and you have to explain your vote,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that wrote much of the House’s version of the bill. “Whether that’s this week, next week, the week after or the August break.”
Walden spent the previous four years running the House Republican campaign arm, which last year was still running ads blasting Democrats for their support of “Obamacare” — more than six years after the law passed on party-line votes.
Lawmakers who know the issue and can talk fluently about it will be best positioned to weather what is shaping up to be a stormy 2018 midterm election for Republicans. “It comes with the territory. You better know what you’re voting for and why, and be able to go home and explain it,” Walden said.
The biggest division among Senate Republicans remains how to handle the ACA’s provision allowing states to expand Medicaid to provide coverage to millions of additional low-income families. The provision is fully paid with federal funds now and is set to shift in a few years to require states to pick up 10 percent of the tab.
Cassidy and Murkowski are among the Senate Republicans from states that accepted that Medicaid expansion and have deep concerns about McConnell’s plan to force states into a near 50-50 split in funding, as well as another conservative plan to impose strict spending caps on the original entitlement program that primarily serves low-income children, the disabled and the elderly.
This bloc has left McConnell far short of the minimum 50 votes he needs (with Vice President Pence ready to cast a tiebreaking vote). He and they will spend the next few weeks trying to forge consensus to pass the legislation. And that means Republicans have to continue talking about the issue — or hiding from their constituents.
On Tuesday, even in Wrangell, an island town with fewer than 2,500 residents in the Alaskan panhandle, Murkowski will march in a parade and almost certainly face questions about how she will vote on health care.
And in Eastport, population 1,300 — long considered the easternmost city in the nation — residents of greater Moose Island are also likely to pepper Collins with questions.
And that’s why some Republicans fear that time will only hurt the legislation’s chances.
“Things start going backward over the Fourth. I think a lot of people then start to think about, you know, it’s less likely to make a deal,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a conservative who led some of the House’s health-care negotiations in the spring. “Having negotiated all my life, if you get close, it’s better to stay and get it done.”
Mike DeBonis in Washington and Ashley Cusick in Baton Rouge contributed to this report.