Senate health care: ‘We’re in the twilight zone of legislating’

Washington (CNN)It was a dramatic turn of events Thursday night when four Republican senators gathered for an impromptu press conference in the Capitol to declare they would only vote for a last-ditch piece of health care legislation if they had a guarantee — that it would never become law.

The “skinny bill” would repeal Obamacare’s individual and employer mandates, but a growing number of Republican senators say they don’t want it to become their legacy when it comes to fullfilling their seven-year promise to overhaul the Affordable Care Act. It’s an atypical legislative strategy in which Republicans would vote “yes” on legislation that no one wants to ultimately pass.
And so Republicans are actively lobbying their fellow Republicans in the House to make sure they will stand in the way of House Speaker Paul Ryan if he does bring it to the floor for a vote. Ryan issued a statement saying he would go to conference, but didn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be a vote on a Senate-passed “skinny bill.”
    Sen. John McCain didn’t like what he heard.
    “I would like to have the kind of assurances he didn’t provide,” McCain, R-Arizona, told reporters.
    Graham told reporters that he was communicating with the leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Mark Meadows, all day Thursday trying to get assurances that his conservative members would block Ryan.
    “We’re in the twilight zone of legislating,” Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said Thursday of the GOP’s strategy.
    A slew of Republican senators openly acknowledged on Thursday that the “skinny repeal” bill wasn’t perfect, while some went as far as to blast it as bad policy.
    “The majority leader cannot promise what the House can do,” said Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson. “That’s not in his powers. The House has to decide that. It’s the House’s decision.”
    “It may be all we can get,” said Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona who was among those members who thought it might not be the worst outcome.
    Graham, meanwhile, called the proposal a “political cop-out” that would throw the insurance markets into “disarray,” and that “as a final product, it would be a disaster.”
    “The worst possible outcome is to pass something that most of us believe is a placeholder and it becomes the final product,” Graham said.
    Republican senators know that they need to pass something in the next few hours if they want to advance their health care negotiations to conference where a group of House and Senate members could then be tasked with hammering out the final legislation. But they also recognize that strategy is rich with risks — one of them being that the “skinny repeal” could become all they get when it comes to gutting Obamacare.
    It’s possible that even if Republican senators pass the “skinny repeal” and it goes to conference, House and Senate Republicans won’t be able iron out disagreements between moderates and conservatives that have dogged them for months.
    Republican senators are also very aware that the “skinny repeal” might not get them any closer to the goal they set from the outset of the process to lower premiums.
    GOP Sen. David Perdue conceded the “skinny repeal” bill would make it hard for people to afford insurance, but that he would vote for it — if he knew the bill could be improved during conference.
    “I’m gonna have to have some assurances that they’re not going to pass that. I’m passing this wanting to get to a conference bill,” Perdue said.
    As he received a barrage of questions from reporters about the Senate’s apparent strategy of passing something that it doesn’t ultimately want the House to pass, Cornyn pushed back with this quip: “I guess we ought to go back to Schoolhouse Rock.”

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