In this case, the Democrats are correct. The reason that House Speaker Paul Ryan and the White House are loudly signaling that they have no interest in pursuing the bipartisan negotiations between Senate HELP Committee leaders Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray is because they’re engaged in a whip operation in support of the Graham-Cassidy Obamacare repeal bill:
Democrats portrayed the rejection of the bipartisan push as intended to create pressure on Senate Republicans to hold their nose and support the Graham-Cassidy bill, and as the only way out of the party’s political quagmire. If that bill fails, Republicans may have to return to bipartisan talks, particularly if Trump again threatens to halt subsidy payments.
A few things have happened in recent weeks that have revived the Republicans’ interest in giving repeal another go. One is that Trump started talking aggressively about turning to the Democrats to make deals since the Republicans clearly cannot deliver on their own. Another is brutal polling data. Gallup has approval of Congress at somewhere between 16% and 18% in August and September among Republican voters. It was at 50% among Republicans in February. For context, Democratic voters give Congress a 14% approval number. Probably more importantly, a quick glance at the generic congressional preference polling shows that the GOP’s position has deteriorated badly since the failure in early August to repeal Obamacare. Before August, the Dems’ advantage ranged roughly between two and six percent, with only a couple of more disturbing outliers. Since the failed vote on Obamacare, however, the range is more like six to nine percent. The RealClearPolitics rolling average is actually at 9.2% at the moment, which is high enough to predict a wave election that could cost the Republicans control of the House of Representatives. A third recent development is that the Senate parliamentarian clarified that the Republicans must repeal Obamacare by September 30th or give up trying. That’s because their special budget reconciliation instructions will expire at the end of the fiscal year.
In combination, the Republicans gained a new sense of urgency. At the very, very least, they weren’t willing to ignore the displeasure of their base and let the deadline come and go without giving it one more try. They feel like they have no cover from the president and they know and can see that he’s lost faith in them. As they began to digest the magnitude of their failure and the likely consequences, the urge to pass something, no matter how horrible and foolhardy started to grow irresistible.
And that’s really all this is. The Graham-Cassidy bill is a toxic piece of crap. It ought to have significantly less support than the stupid skinny repeal did, and for several reasons. The most important reason is that the Senate Republicans could vote for the skinny repeal bill and have some reasonable hope that the House wouldn’t actually pass it, too. For the individual Republican lawmaker, the ideal situation is a bill they can vote for that will never become law and cause tens of millions of people to lose health coverage. Ultimately, every Republican who could get away with voting for skinny repeal did so, but many would have been absolutely horrified if it had ever been signed by the president. That dynamic hasn’t changed. What’s changed is the level of desperation to deliver something in light of the polling data and the president’s turn against them.
Since the Graham-Cassidy bill is in many ways more radical and obviously worse than the skinny repeal bill, there are more reasons not to want to see it become law. So, maybe the increased pressure and the worse bill somewhat cancel each other out. The more it looks like the House might actually follow suit and pass the Senate bill, as is, the less likely it is that individual Republican senators will vote for it.
The governors of Nevada, Alaska, and Ohio are all asking their Republican senators to vote ‘no,’ and that could provide cover for someone like Rob Portman or Lisa Murkowski to oppose the bill. Right now, it looks like opponents’ hopes lie with Rand Paul and John McCain, but that’s deceptive. The list of Republican senators who know the Graham-Cassidy bill is irresponsible and will come back to bite them is much longer than the list of Republicans who are willing to express doubt about its merits. Without question, Lamar Alexander understands what’s at stake.
Here’s what you can be certain about. Every Republican senator who thinks they can vote for repeal without a repeal actually occurring will almost certainly do so. No one wants to be the next John McCain, including potentially John McCain. But if it looks like the House will rubber stamp the Senate bill, there’s a long list of Republicans who might feel like they have to bite the bullet and be the bad guy.
In my estimation, the chances of repeal are currently higher than they were in August, although I think the risk in August was actually very low. The difference is that the Republicans have had a chance to see what failure looks like, and they’re not sure they can live with the results. Also, McCain is Graham’s best friend, and this is Graham’s bill.
The danger is that the Republicans are in a similar situation to the members of Delta House after they were expelled by Dean Wormer.
Otter: Bluto’s right. Psychotic, but absolutely right. We gotta take these bastards. Now we could do it with conventional weapons that could take years and cost millions of lives. No, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.
If nothing else, passing Graham-Cassidy would be really stupid and, considering the consequences, a very futile effort to avoid the consequences of all the Republicans’ unhinged railing against the Affordable Care Act. But that doesn’t mean they won’t do it.
I don’t think they’ll all be so crazy as to go ahead with it, but I cannot rule it out.