Bipartisan approach to health care may be more talk than action

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., joined by, from left, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, speak with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 25, 2017, after Vice President Mike Pence broke a 50-50 tie to start debating Republican legislation to tear down much of the Obama health care law. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The message from Republicans and Democrats, from one side of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other is that both parties have to work together to fix the health care system. The problem is, neither side is willing to give an inch.

The Republican-only effort to pass a straight repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, failed on Wednesday in a 45 to 55 defeat, with 7 GOP senators voted against it. The exact same measure passed in 2015 with 52 Republican votes.

On Tuesday night, another GOP plan to allow insurers to provide cheap, low-coverage plans and one Obamacare option was also defeated. Now the GOP leadership is continuing to press members behind the scenes to get something on the floor that can earn 50 votes and a victory.

That victory could come from a partial repeal, or "skinny repeal," a proposal that which would end insurance mandates for employers and individuals, and end the tax on medical devices. That measure could act as a placeholder to a more thorough Obamacare repeal, but it is unclear whether it has enough support to pass.

Debate on the health care bill began on Tuesday afternoon after Vice President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote and it's expected to continue until at least Thursday.

Underscoring the dire straits of the Republican repeal effort, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) returned to the Senate on Tuesday to cast a decisive vote to advance the health care bill only days after being diagnosed with brain cancer.

With almost every member of the Senate present in the chamber, McCain delivered a scathing speech condemning his colleagues for their failure to work together and work through regular order for the interests of the American people.

"We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle," McCain said. "If this process ends in failure, which seem likely, then let’s return to regular order."

Returning to "regular order" has been a rallying cry from Democrats, moderate Republicans and institutional hardliners, like McCain, who are frustrated with the "parliamentary maneuvers" that have been used in recent years by the majority to undercut the minority.

With plenty of blame to go around on both sides, it's not clear whether lawmakers will bridge the partisan divide on health care, even though it's almost impossible to find a single voice saying they don't want a "bipartisanship."

At the White House on Tuesday, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price emphasized that the Trump administration is open to working with Democrats on a health care fix. "We hope that they will call us," Price told Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Apparently those calls are not going out.

"I have a listed number for my office. I have a listed home phone number ... but nobody's called me," remarked Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Take the poll: Will both parties work together to pass a health care bill?

If the current effort in the Senate fails, a number of top Republicans have indicated that their last resort could be working with Democrats.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said that he is "always open to working with Democrats" insisting, "I'm going to do everything in my power to try and bring both sides together."

Asked why it is so difficult for either side to actually come to the table, Hatch explained the problem is the Democrats' "hatred of Donald Trump" and desire to see the president and Republicans fail.

The freshman GOP Senator from Louisiana, John Kennedy, told reporters, "Obviously you would like to have a bipartisan approach, but before we even started the Democrats told us they would not participate, they would not support anything we did. ...There are two sides to this story."

According to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) there is already a bipartisan backup plan being crafted behind the scenes by a group of about a dozen senators, including Maine Republican Susan Collins.

The senators are expected to meet later on Wednesday night with a focus on ways to "fix the existing law," Nelson explained. "It's what we should have been doing from the get-go."

As part of the effort to both return to regular order and derail the current GOP-led process, Democrats announced on Wednesday that they would be offering an amendment that would send the bill back to committee where it would be reworked by Republicans and Democrats.

"We want a regular order process," Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said. "We'd love to have this go back to committee and start over again in an open process so we can solve legitimate concerns on a bipartisan basis."

Again, it is not clear how much bipartisan support the so-called "bipartisan amendment" will receive when it comes up for a vote.

Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin explained that the only way the Senate can move forward on a truly bipartisan health care bill is for the current effort to fail.

"This has to fail. And if this fails, I think ... obviously this goes back to the committee," he said. "Then, the American people get to see ... there's no secrecy involved in it. We discuss openly these changes in the American health system."

According to a recent poll, the American people desperately want Congress to work together to solve the problems of the health care system. The CNN survey found that 77 percent of those polled said they would like Republicans in Congress to try to work with Democrats on health care. Only 12 percent said they supported continuing the GOP-only plan.

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) pleaded with Republicans to kill the current bill "turn back" and start the health care bill from scratch. "We can go through regular order. We want to work with you."

However, the terms Schumer has repeatedly outlined for bringing the Democrats to the table are a non-starter for most Republicans, because it includes dropping any talk of repealing the health care law.

Democrats and some Republicans also lament the fact that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) started the repeal and replace effort in January announcing that the bill would be passed through budget reconciliation, a tactic that requires only 51 votes.

When McConnell unveiled the first draft of the health care bill, he expressed "regret" that Senate Democrats "made clear early on that they did not want to work with us in a serious bipartisan way to address the Obamacare status quo."

President Trump has repeatedly chastized Democrats for not working with Republicans on health care, but according to prominent Democrats, Trump has not reached out.

From the 2010party-line vote by Democrats to pass Obamacare to the current GOP party-line effort to repeal and replace the law, both sides have earned the right to be outraged.

Sen. McCain probably best summarized the sad state of partisan politics when he asked, "What have we to lose by trying to work together to find those solutions? We’re not getting much done apart."

"Both sides have let this happen. Let’s leave the history of who shot first to the historians."

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