At 1:24 a.m. Thursday, the Senate took its first step toward an endgame to eventually repeal and replace ObamaCare.
It should be no surprise the Senate was up late voting. This was the Senate’s second post-midnight session this week. To ease the slog, freshman Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., brought staff and fellow senators baskets of Red Bull, Indiana popcorn and Diet Mountain Dew.
The new Congress has barely been in session more than a few days and it’s already been a rollercoaster.
On opening day, House Republicans had to strip a controversial ethics watchdog provision out of the very first measure facing a vote -- seconds before the Congress started. There was the murder of Marianne Viverito, a long-time aide to Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill. And Wednesday night, Capitol medics whisked freshman Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., out of the Republican cloakroom on a stretcher after he fell ill.
And then there was repeal and replace, on two fronts.
First, a cadre of Republican lawmakers wants to repeal and replace a piece of art hanging in a congressional tunnel that depicts police officers as pigs. Several GOPers repeatedly stripped the painting from its moorings -- only to have Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., rehang the picture each time.
But when it came to legislation, repeal and replace – as in ObamaCare – is starting to move forward.
The key for Republicans to repeal and replace the law is a plan to avoid Democratic filibusters. Republicans can achieve this by teeing up certain budget rules. Known as “budget reconciliation,” the process short-circuits filibusters. This is the only way the GOP can prevent Democrats from derailing their goal. The Senate toiled on these first steps Wednesday and into the wee hours of Thursday morning.
Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, also withdrew an amendment to the budget package to tap the brakes on the repeal and replace. They hoped to delay any budget reconciliation package until March 3, rather than a prospective deadline of Jan. 27.
“We simply must have a replacement and not a repeal,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “Yes, they should be done about the same time. But I don’t see a comprehensive [health care] reform bill before the end of this month. That’s not feasible.”
Ironically, there may be no operational way for such a special budget reconciliation package to be ready prior to March 3.
At his press conference, President-elect Trump said Congress would repeal and replace “simultaneously.” He speculated it could even come “in the same hour.”
The president-elect added the plans will come together “as soon as our secretary is approved and gets into office. We’ll be filing a plan.”
That refers to the prospective confirmation of Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., to serve as Health and Human Services secretary. But here’s the rub. When might the Senate actually confirm Price?
The Senate Finance Committee is charged with holding the confirmation hearing for Price. Senate Health, Education and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., says he’ll hold a “courtesy” hearing for Price soon. But Alexander indicates the Senate won’t actually confirm Price until mid to late February.
The Senate is scheduled to take its first major recess of the year Feb. 19. So, if the president-elect waits to “be filing a plan” until the Senate confirms his HHS secretary, it’s doubtful anything of substance happens on health care until around March 3 – the date Corker, Portman and Collins advocated.
With the Senate done for now, the procedural step for the House hits Friday. That’s where centrist Republicans like Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., have reservations.
“Before we load a gun, I’d like to know where it would be pointed,” said Dent.
To hear Trump tell it, that won’t be a problem. But consider moderate Republicans in Democratic-leaning districts who are reluctant to the slash-and-burn approach. There are 20 House Republicans who represent districts Hillary Clinton carried last fall.
A big unknown is where members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus stand.
“We’re not taking an official position for or against the budget package on Friday,” said Freedom Caucus leader Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.
It’s generally thought the Freedom Caucus stayed directly out of the fray so no one would perceive its members as the skunk at a garden party. Freedom Caucus members all want repeal. It’s just a question of mechanics.
“If we wanted to stop the resolution, we could take a more strident position,” said Meadows.
But the Freedom Caucus could maximize its leverage. If House Republicans struggle to find the votes on Friday, the Freedom Caucus could extract promises from GOP leaders over the process. But Meadows says such a tactic isn’t part of the Freedom Caucus’s repertoire.
It’s unclear how many members of the Freedom Caucus could vote nay. Meadows refused to speculate. But Meadows thought he knew where the rest of the House Republican Conference stood.
“I think there are 18 hard noes,” said Meadows.
This is where the math gets interesting.
The breakdown in the House in this Congress is 241 Republicans and 194 Democrats. Democrats won’t back any efforts to repeal or replace. That means Republicans must do this alone -- and can only lose 24 on their side.
A senior House Republican source familiar with the vote tally expressed skepticism of Meadows’ calculation. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the GOP’s chief deputy whip, brimmed with confidence when asked if Republicans had the votes.
“Yes!” trumpeted McHenry candidly. “I think our members will be there.”
And if they aren’t? Well, they can occupy themselves by debating what artwork should hang on the congressional walls.
Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.