Q&A: Ask Amber from The Fix

Jul 18, 2017

If it's lunchtime Tuesday, it's Fix politics time. What do you want to know?

Senate Republicans' second attempt to pass a health-care bill 50 of 52 of them could agree on imploded last night. Now they're considering voting to repeal Obamacare without a replacement -- but not really considering it. What do you want to know?

Amber, thanks so much for your fantastic reporting as well as the reporting of your colleagues Washington Post! Question: One thing I seemed to recall was that the ACA was passed with 60 votes in the Senate, but some parts of it (after Scott Brown won his special election) were passed via reconciliation. How does that legislative history impact the current repeal discussions? Does this serve to impede the GOP from a straight repeal as McConnell has recently floated?

Hi! Thank you for the compliment; I'll take it. 

And this is an excellent question. Basically, Democrats tried to pass the legislation with Republican votes, and they got some the first go around, but then the summer of 2009 and birth of the tea party happened, and sources in the Senate at that time tell me they were forced to switch tactics to pass the bill without any Republican support.

Of course, the method to do that, as you point out, is reconciliation -- a little-known budget tool that lets legislation that affects the federal budget pass with a simple majority. 

And yes, under reconciliation, the Senate cannot fully repeal Obamacare. It's an open question if they can undo the individual mandates, for example, or the requirement that insurers accept people with preexisting conditions. 

You posted a very in-depth story that kept a running count on who among the Senate GOP support the awful TrumpCare bill. With today's release of the latest changes, where do these senators now stand? Also, how many senators is needed to stop a bill at the procedural vote stage, before the official vote? https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/politics/ahca-senate-whip-count/


Well, the bill as we were tracking it is dead. So now the question becomes: Where do senators stand on the next vote for health care -- apparently, to repeal Obamacare without a replacement? So far, at least two Republican senators (Susan Collins of Maine and Shelley Moore Capito of W. Va.) have said they won't support a full repeal sans a replacement. (I explain why that's a really bad policy/political idea here.)

And about a dozen more Republican senators have said in the past they won't support undoing Obamacare without a plan. Basically, this isn't a vote to take seriously, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) knows that.

Two questions: what are the chances the repeal only vote passes? And assuming it doesn't, can the Dems and GOP really work together to put in some decent fixes. Thanks for your great work, Amber, and for taking these questions.

Thanks for asking them!

1) .00000000000001%. (As I explain here, trying to repeal obamacare without a replacement runs counterintuitive to basic health-care policy, to the current politics of health care and even the rules of the Senate.)

2) I don't know what happens next. Democrats say their red line is an attempt (or intent) to significantly roll back Obamacare. Which leads us to another question: What if Republicans propose changing some parts of Obamacare? And what parts would Democrats be okay with? (FWIW Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday that Obamacare isn't perfect.) And any proposal still has to get support from a sizable amount of Republicans. Is there middle ground between both parties? I just don't know. 

Jane Sanders says that the FBI investigating her is sexism. How does that play with the Sanders' base?

She did indeed say this. I don't know how that plays with Sen. Bernie Sanders's base, but her 'sexism' comment strikes me as odd and, frankly, baseless.

The investigators looking into her time as president of Burlington College and a land deal she struck, allegedly by promising donors money that wasn't there, are all career prosecutors, and it'd be remarkable if these people had ulterior political, or gender-based motives. (Of course, same goes for President Trump decrying the special counsel's investigation as a "witch hunt.")

At least it takes the spotlight off the Russian morass. (Did I see there was an eighth person in on the infamous DJT Jr meeting?)

I think President Trump would rather none of these news stories!

And, correct. Our Rosalind Helderman just reported that "An American-based employee of a Russian real estate company" attended the DJTJ meeting. 

Hey Amber! I'm a law student focusing on health law, and I watched last night's/this morning's news with some amusement. In class back in March, my professor spent about 30 minutes going through the various factions in the GOP, the estimated number of members in each, and what they wanted (this was theoretically a regulatory class, but we routinely got derailed by ACA repeal news). He said that while he thought repeal would happen since it was such a major issue for Republicans, he conceded that he had no idea how it would actually happen, because the numbers just did not work to create a majority. Four months later, and it looks like he was right. Although I'm sure he's kicking himself for reading the first draft of the House bill three times in one night...

He read the first draft of the House bill three times?! I'm very impressed. (Sign this person up for my politics newsletter, The 5-Minute Fix! wapo.st/fix-newsletter)

But, yes, your professor's predictions seem to be prescient. (#alliteration)

 The Republican Party is just too divided ideologically, they underestimated how difficult it would be to undo a major social program, and they're trying to do it without Democrats, which limits how many votes they can spare. 

So let's say the current political cast in DC (from Trump to everyone in Congress) is put into a Game of Thrones environment (kind of similar to what is happening right now, IMHO). Who do you think makes it out alive and on top after the mid-term elections?

At the risk of losing you as a reader, I don't watch GOT. (I love how, like, three seasons in, Sen. Claire McCaskill quit the show because, she said, of a gratuitous rape scene. Wasn't that stuff evident on episode one?)

I digress. 

I think if Republicans can't pass some kind of health-care reform legislation, they the are basically like the Tyrells: Ascendant only to crash. (Did that metaphor make sense? Had to crowd source that one.)

Point is: Maybe voters outside D.C. haven't really internalized the Russia news, or don't care because they don't see how it affects their daily lives. But health care -- a lot of these voters have been sending politicians to Washington to undo Obamacare for SEVEN YEARS. It'd be devastating for Republicans not to be able to make progress on their promise now that they finally control all of Washington.

What is the point of these? You can still hear the audio. Makes no sense.

My colleague Callum Borchers, who writes about media and politics, has a theory: These press hearings have become absolutely cringe-worthy. (Latest here). Just about everything Sean Spicer or Sarah Huckabee Sanders says is undermined by the president himself, or vice-a-versa. So, Callum's theory goes, it's painful, but less painful than having the clip replay on cable news all night and the next morning.

But! Callum will annotate every one of these briefings, so the rest of us know what was said. Check back on The Fix daily for that. 

What's next? Will Trump try to kill ACA on his own, will they vote to repeal only? Anything else?

1) The Senate votes to repeal only
2) It will fail. (Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) knows this.)
3) Republicans either completely change their goal of repealing Obamacare and talk to Democrats about how to tweak Obamacare
4) Or Republicans skip health care and move onto tax reform and the budget and the debt ceiling. (But, as I argue above, they could pay a political price for this.)

Interesting article (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/07/17/republicans-catch-22-on-health-care). If the ACA survives this... and it really looks like it will... is it here to stay? It may be "tweaked" or "fixed," but it appears it will be part of the American health care system for generations (barring single-payer, of course).

The Trump administration could still deregulate some parts of Obamacare, which would weaken the law. But the main structure --  marketplaces to buy insurance, a requirement you have health care or pay a tax, requirements insurance companies allow people with preexisting conditions and provide essential benefits like pre-natal care, and expanded Medicaid are all likely to stay in some form. 

Marco Rubio wants to be president, but that position won't be an option for him again until 2024. He is working a job he openly hates and tried to leave, but stayed on to keep his presidential hopes alive. And to pile on, he now has to carry water for a man he doesn't think is qualified for the job Rubio covets (President Trump). And he's got 6 more years of this. Six more years of votes that will be used against him, six more years of committee hearings where he has to show up, and six more years of being in close proximity to Ted Cruz. Why not resign and let GOP Gov. Rick Scott pick his replacement? He did what the GOP wanted in keeping the seat in 2016. Why not call it a day, make some money, and not get tagged as an accomplice when the S.S. Trump crashes to shore?

When Rubio decided to run for Senate after his failed presidential bid (despite saying he wouldn't), associates of his I talked to said that Rubio honestly felt the Senate was the next-best place to make a difference. (Though making money for his family would have been nice.) Notably, his decision came right after the Orlando shooting, which he said he was "deeply moved" by. So I guess, he's decided to like the Senate and will stay until he doesn't. (He refused to commit to a six-year term.)

Hi Amber: It seems inevitable that GOP senators will fall in line and vote for this frighteningly terrible bill. A few questions: why have most media outlets focused on the "delays" in getting this terrible bill passed instead of focusing on how much this bill will hurt virtually everyone and that most Americans absolutely hate it? Why aren't they putting the GOP's feet to the fire by asking, point blank: "How can you support this bill when the vast majority of Americans hate it?" Secondly, what do you predict our health care system will be like once this is passed? Will our situation essentially be what it was before the ACA? Or will it be worse? I predict worse, but interested in your analysis. P.S. PLEASE hold your GOP contacts accountable. The media should not be focused on "delaying" the bill. They should be focused on how awful it is (based on objective evidence from the CBO, multiple health care agencies and even insurance companies) and stories should focus on how it will negatively impact virtually every American.

Hi! thanks for your question.

But I push back that "the media" is one giant entity that covers the same story the same way. At The Washington Post, for example, we've written about the politics of delayed votes and how that impacts the likelihood any bill will become law.

But we've also written about the real-world impacts of this proposal, from the CBO score to how a couple with a two-month-old daughter with down syndrome and a heart defect would change their lives under Republicans' plan.  

Russia continues to reap benefits from interfering in our election: Trump elected, partisan acrimony at home, divisions with our allies abroad, etc. However, the sanctions remain in place, their compounds haven't been returned, among a portion of US citizens, EU citizens & governments they are even more distrusted/disliked than ever. So, is Putin/Russia happy with the results of their meddling or not?

A lot of (mostly Democratic) lawmakers think this is exactly what Russia wanted: Us fighting about Russia, mistrust of U.S. institutions, like Congress and the integrity of our elections. Some former intelligence officials, like former CIA director John Brennan, have said the same.

But Congress is also moving legislation to sanction Russia again, which Russia definitely wouldn't be happy about. 

Message to Trump team: Please don't let him do anymore interviews. He didn't help at all, and might have hurt Trump.

So, is essentially what we have been seeing from senate Republicans a big game of chicken, where all who are opposed to the health bill have been waiting for somebody else to come out against it, so they don't have to go on record as being opposed?

I think that's fair. The Post's congressional dean, Paul Kane, pointed out that not one but two senators simultaneously came out against the bill Monday night and killed it. They even included each other in their tweets. "The buddy system," Kane called it. No one wants to be THE person that gets blamed on the right for killing what is probably Republicans' best shot to change health-care policy. 

Assuming that Obamacare remains in effect... what are the prospects for Democrats winning some governors' races from incumbent Republicans in the 2018 elections? Would Democratic candidates running on a platform that includes Obamacare expansion that the Republican governors had rejected be a likely winning campaign strategy?

First, knocking off a governor is one of the hardest thing to do in politics. It's only been done a couple times over the past decade-ish.

As Obamacare gets more popular by the day, Democratic operatives certainly hope they can run on Obamacare -- and Republicans' attempts to gut it. Though I imagine that "Trump Trump Trump Trump" will be a bigger part of the discussion.

First test case for this: Virginia, where there's an open governor's seat this November. 

Which event poses the greater risk to the GOP's fortunes: the (likely) failure of their health care bill, or Donald Trump Jr.'s legal clumsiness?

I say health care, and so do smart Republican operatives I've talked to. Because right now, polling suggests that even after DJTJ admitting to what legal experts said could be illegal coordination with the Russians, Americans are more focused on jobs and the economy and ... health care. 

Hi Amber -- thanks for taking questions today. How embarrassing is it for Trump that, at the moment he was trying to woo Senators about the health care bill, two senators of his own party were also announcing their opposition to it? To put it another way, one of his big campaign talking points was his ability to make deals in ways that "typical" politicians could not, and it would seem that just took a pretty big hit. Or, and I know this sounds snarky but it's a serious question, is this president pretty much incapable of embarrassment from the get-go?

I think you're exactly right: The fact he was dining GOP senators at the moment two others were crafting the bill's coffin is a case study in how out of it this administration has been on health care -- and, arguably, on other policy, too. And it definitely could be a blow to his narrative he's a deal maker.

I don't think the president is immune from embarrassment, simply because we saw from the Comey memos how hard he allegedly fought to defend his reputation about whether he was under investigation by Russia. But it's an intriguing thought. 

50-50? 80-20? Zip?

50-50. In a normal hyperpartisan world, I'd say less than that, but Republicans reeealllly need a victory on health care, and, increasingly, working with Democrats is the only way to do it. 

Is his reelection bid now a bit safer?

So I was just talking to some Democratic operatives about this. (Heller, from Nevada, is Republicans' most vulnerable senator up for reelection in 2018.)

They are arguing that Heller voted in 2015 for a version of an Obamacare repeal bill, so he's not entirely off the hook. I'm not sure I buy that argument, just because Heller made himself a national figure by publicly and so forcefully opposing the first version of Senate Republicans' bill. (He was quiet on the second version.)

Democratic Party leadership proposes a new health care bill to Republicans that is essentially Obamacare-plus, but offers the GOP the opportunity to pass a health-care bill with bilateral support. Wouldn't that be a chance for the GOP to claim a win by saying they are collaborating? And doesn't that almost guarantee that Dems don't do this?

Obamacare-plus? You mean like more government involvement in people's health care? I see Republicans perhaps working with Democrats on a bill that lessens government's role in people's health care, but not the other way around. 

Why are Republican pols allowed to say that Democrats simply would not participate in crafting a Repeal and Replace bill when clearly Republicans shut the door on any Democratic participation? When the ACA was being drafted, Republicans submitted more than 161 amendments in the House and they later voted against their own amendments. Republicans, on the other hand, met in secret, permitted no Democratic participation and no amendments yet John Cornyn was on Meet the Press telling America it was the Democrats who failed to help them. I have yet to see any of the media tell Republicans -- Whoa...you shut the Dems out so how can you blame them for this debacle...Thanks

I think instead of debating health care, the Senate will probably spend its time debating exactly this: Who's to blame for Congress's inability to pass a bill? I don't think there's a clear answer -- Trump himself goes back and forth between Democrats and some of the moderate and conservative Republicans who have opposed it. 

Would they tell the President to stay out of the discussion?

Was he ever in it? 

Why on earth would McConnell bring up a straight repeal at this point. Is he simply out to embarass his fellow republican senators now?

Yes. Exactly. 

He is trying to call conservatives' bluff. They're the ones that ultimately killed this version of the bill.  Okay then, he's saying, would you dare vote to get rid of Obamacare without a replacement? When they don't, he can blame them. 

Looks like the Senate bill is dead, but McConnell threatens to throw a tantrum and repeal Obama Care without a replacement. What are the odds of this? It' seems most Republicans now opposing the bill, e.g., Cruz, oppose the bill because it doesn't hurt enough people. A total repeal without a replacement might play to this group.

As I've been chatting, our excellent congressional team has been reporting out where GOP senators stand on a straight-repeal bill: There are now enough "no" votes to kill even that proposal before it can get to a full vote. 

Can this be moved through via the Senates reconciliation rules? If so will it be a "full repeal" or more or a crippling blow that repeals what they can under reconciliation rules effectively leaving the law dead?

See above, toward the top. Senate Republicans can't fully repeal Obamacare without facing a Democratic filibuster, a filibuster they don't have the votes to overcome. Their best-case scenario is a partial repeal, and even that could have massive health policy and political consequences. 

Rex Tillerson's State Dept.: 1. Zero interest in human rights 2. Closing War Crimes Office 3. Plans to shutter Cyber Office 4. Tons of unfilled positions 5. All the embassy staff fired by Trump months ago replaced yet? What is Tillerson's goal? To me it looks like he's weakening the USA and increasing security risks for us worldwide. Will Congress do anything about any of this?

I know that members of both parties have criticized the Trump administration's slow appointment schedule -- but they can't make the president appointment staff to the federal government. They can only approve or disapprove of those appointments. 

Trump quote from about five minutes ago. How's that going to play?

Totally inconsistent with everything he's said before. 

In your opinion, what WOULD it take to make the average Trump voter feel that Russian interference and Trump's collusion is as threatening as the repeal of the ACA?

Special counsel Robert Mueller has to finish his investigation and say: X Y and Z improper things happened with regard to the Trump campaign and Russia, and I recommend the justice Department charge A B and C with a crime for it. 

And I worked up an appetite doing it, so I'm going to eat lunch now. See y'all next Tuesday! 

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Amber Phillips
Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Fix. She was previously the one-woman D.C. bureau for the Las Vegas Sun and has reported from Boston and Taiwan.
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