Senator Mitch McConnell has long been stuck in a tricky position on Obamacare. Two years ago he was the leader of the minority, which could do little but demand votes on amendments to repeal the disastrous law. Last year, when Republicans ascended to the majority, he still faced Senate rules that would require 60 votes to overcome an inevitable filibuster by Democrats. Ever the realist, McConnell settled into a strategy that tried to make the most of these unappealing circumstances.
“I’d like to put the Senate Democrats in the positions of voting on the most unpopular parts of this law and see if we can put it on the president’s desk and make him take real ownership of this highly destructive Obamacare,” McConnell said. But, he continued, Barack Obama “is the president of the United States until January of 2017, and people need to understand that that constrains our ability to do for this law what we’d like to do, which is to get rid of it.”
But McConnell, who is known as a wily tactician with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Senate’s byzantine rules, devised a strategy to use a process called “reconciliation” to get another shot at repeal. The reconciliation process allows for expedited consideration of certain tax and spending legislation, which means that they are not subject to filibuster.
The House of Representatives, where Republicans have held a majority for nearly five years, has passed more than 50 bills to repeal all or part of the health care law, but reconciliation is finally giving Senate Democrats the chance they’ve been looking for. The Atlantic’s Russell Berman reports:
Republicans on Thursday night achieved something of a milestone in their five-year battle against the Affordable Care Act: They finally passed a bill repealing the law through the United States Senate.
The measure cleared by a narrow, party-line margin of 52-47, and it must still return to the House for a final vote next week. But passage in the Senate means that after dozens of failed tries by Republicans in the House, President Obama will get the opportunity to stamp his veto on a bill eviscerating the law that, in the popular parlance if not in text, bears his name.
“For too long, Democrats did everything to prevent Congress from passing the type of legislation necessary to help these Americans who are hurting. Today, that ends,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor before the final vote. “Today, a middle class that’s suffered enough from a partisan law will see the Senate vote to build a bridge past Obamacare and toward better care.”
Specifally, the bill approved by the Senate repeals the medical device tax and Cadillac taxes, undoes the Medicaid expansion and the attendant subsidies, and eliminates the fines for the individual and employer mandates.
Democrats and members of the media immediately jumped up to call it little more than a symbolic ploy with no practical effect. In some ways that is true. After all, as McConnell mentioned earlier, so long as President Obama sits in the Oval Office, there is simply no practical way to get something passed. The vote threshold for a veto override is simply too high.
But that’s not to say that the vote was meaningless. After all, it allowed Republicans to live up to one of the promises they made to voters.
“It’s all tied up with getting enough votes to deliver on what Republicans have promised to deliver on for about four years,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa.) “It’s putting a bill on the president’s desk repealing Obamacare or changing Obamacare and this is the only way it can be done.”
More importantly, it lays the foundation for a legislative strategy for replacement and repeal if a Republican is elected president in 2016. Jennifer Haberkorn reports:
It’s not just optics. Republicans are carefully constructing a legislative strategy, based on Senate rules and precedents, to make it easier to unravel the health law in 2017 if a Republican wins the White House.
Under the special rules of reconciliation, the Senate’s parliamentarian has to determine whether each provision complies with the Senate’s rules. Those rulings are based in part on precedent. So once the parliamentarian determines that this legislation complies, it makes it hard to argue that a similar repeal bid doesn’t in January 2017 — when a new president might sign it into law.
“Aside from the posturing, it does open up some express lanes or procedural moves for a 2017 environment, in terms of what you can do legislatively,” said Thomas Miller, a health care policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute and a former staffer at the Joint Economic Committee.
Getting a bill that repeals crucial pieces of Obamacare to the president’s desk is a clear triumph. Next year’s elections will determine whether Republicans can cross that final obstacle.