Senate Democrats Stage Stand-Off Over GOP Health Care Efforts

17 hours ago
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Republicans' effort to overhaul the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare has led to a standoff in the Senate. Republicans have been working on their bill in private. That has frustrated people in Washington and in lawmakers' home districts. In a few minutes, we'll hear from the independent governor of Alaska, which has a lot riding on the legislation.

First, Democrats are trying to stall all Senate business to protest what they call shameful and secret Republican negotiations. NPR's Geoff Bennett covers Congress and is with us now from the Capitol. Hey there, Geoff.

GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.

MCEVERS: What are Democrats doing exactly?

BENNETT: Well, they're using parliamentary maneuvers to slow down the business of the Senate, and I'm told Democrats are planning to hold the Senate floor until at least midnight by delivering a series of floor speeches. Here's the rationale Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer gave on the Senate floor today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: If Republicans are not going to allow debate on their bill on the floor in committee, Democrats will make opportunities to debate.

MCEVERS: OK, so do Democrats think this tactic will give them leverage in the health care talks, or do they have another goal in mind here?

BENNETT: I think their goal is to really bring attention to what they view as the GOP's attempt to scrap the Affordable Care Act in secret. And since Democrats are the minority party, they don't have the power to stop Republicans altogether. But they can be disruptive.

And I think what this is, Kelly, is Democrats responding to the pressure they're getting from progressive activists who frankly wanted them to be more aggressive all along and that they've worried that while Republicans have been moving forward with their health care bill, everyone's attention has been focused elsewhere, namely the Russia investigations. And the other thing I think Democrats also recognize is that they haven't really been a part of the legislative process to overhaul the Affordable Care Act by design, so this is a way for them to insert themselves.

MCEVERS: How much sympathy do the Democrats have from Republicans in the Senate? I mean we have heard some of them express frustration of the lack of transparency in this negotiation process.

BENNETT: Yeah, the thing is, Republicans aren't openly objecting to it the way Democrats are. And the majority leader - the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, makes the point that Congress has spent the last seven years learning about the Affordable Care Act and coming up with solutions. So he says there shouldn't be any surprises.

But you know, even as we speak, there are a number of Republican senators who've seen nothing more than an outline or a PowerPoint summary of the legislation. Here's Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski. She's a key swing vote on the Senate health care bill, and she shared her frustration in an interview with Alaska's KTOO Public Media.

LISA MURKOWSKI: Yeah, I've got a problem with it. If I'm not going to see a bill before we have a vote on it, that's just not a good way to handle something that is as significant as and important as health care.

BENNETT: But I talked to a staffer today who put it to me this way. He said the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, knows people can't attack what they can't see, and drafting the Senate health care bill behind closed doors is the most expedient way for Republicans to arrive at the minimum votes they need to pass it. And so the secrecy gives Republican senators cover to hash out their significant and serious differences on this bill, a bill, by the way - at least the House version - which is not at all popular.

MCEVERS: And McConnell says he wants a vote on this bill before the July 4 congressional recess. What's the rush?

BENNETT: Well, there are a couple of procedural reasons for that. I won't go too far into the weeds only to say...

MCEVERS: OK.

BENNETT: ...That the rules that outline the budget process which Republicans are using to pass this health care legislation so that they can do it without Democratic votes - those rules say that lawmakers can only move one such bill at a time. And Republicans are really ready to move on from health care. They feel like they've invested a lot of time, a lot of political capital on this already. And in order to move on to tax overhaul or drafting a budget for the next fiscal year, they've got to clear this first. And so the rules are crystal clear on that. So they'll either vote by July 4, or they'll just move on entirely.

MCEVERS: Very quickly, how likely is it Republicans could come up with something that will pass?

BENNETT: They've got slim margins and a lot of competing interests. Mainly Medicaid is the real sticking point right now. But I'm told that Senate Republican leaders are telling members that this is their one and likely only chance to make good on their promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The question is, is that enough of a motivating factor?

MCEVERS: NPR's Geoff Bennett on Capitol Hill, thank you.

BENNETT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.