Capitol Attitude

Capitol Attitude: Just good enough

Chad Pergram

There was some good news for House Republicans when the Congressional Budget Office released its updated analysis of the GOP health care bill Wednesday: No sitting Republican body slammed a congressional reporter to the ground when asked about it.

 The CBO report may have triggered a few responses like that with lawmakers taking out their frustrations on the press. Instead, the CBO study of the health care measure breathed life into the plan to live for another day.

“I feel good,” gleamed House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., moments after the non-partisan CBO posted its revamped score of the legislation. “It’s great.”

 Things could have been a lot worse.

The CBO produced a nasty evaluation of the original legislation in March. Back then, the CBO projected that an additional 24 million Americans would lose health care coverage. After the GOP brass contorted the package into something the House squeezed through, the CBO now asserts that only 23 million Americans lose insurance.

How consequential is the CBO score to the plan to repeal and replace ObamaCare?

The study was important to maintaining the effort. As for the politics? Not great.

Perhaps that’s why a number of House GOPers low bridged the CBO’s predictions as to how many people may lose coverage. This was an effort to cast the health care bill in the best possible light.

 “The CBO has historically been off on a number of items,” said Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va. “It’s not that they’re bad people at the CBO. The future is hard to predict.”

“They’re not prophets,” said Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J., of the CBO.

MacArthur authored a key amendment to tweak the bill and help usher it to passage.

“Just because a group of auditors down the block say something’s going to happen doesn’t make it so,” added MacArthur.

The CBO isn’t just some motley amalgamation of “auditors down the block.” CBO employees work for Congress which is controlled by Republicans. If the GOP doesn’t want the CBO, well…

Never mind that Ryan and the rest of the House GOP leadership made a point of hanging onto the House-approved bill for weeks and not shipping it to the Senate until the CBO produced its update. There was concern the House could be forced to re-vote the plan if the CBO’s metrics exploded the deficit and made the package tough to manage in the Senate.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-MD, made light of this problem in the weekly, floor colloquy with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

“Is this bill coming back to the House? Should we expect another vote on it?” asked Hoyer. “If we are going to schedule it, we should at least be given notice.”

McCarthy dodged multiple entreaties by Hoyer, never directly saying if the House could have to re-vote the issue.

“This is a technical issue,” replied McCarthy.

But a re-vote would have been anything but technical.

Here’s why.

The House and Senate GOP leadership elected to treat the health care bill under a special set of rules designed to avoid a filibuster. “Budget reconciliation” is a process inoculated from Senate filibusters. Garden variety bills are subject to a filibuster.

Senate budget reconciliation rules prohibit any legislation which adds to the deficit. Those provisions are immediately stripped from the bill and would instantly make the House-passed measure ineligible for reconciliation. Eliminating those provisions could be a death knell for the bill. Had the legislation not comported with reconciliation provisions, the House may have been forced to fillet major portions of the bill – significantly changing the substance of the legislation – and then ship the package to the Senate.

If the House had to revote this bill, it’s almost as though the successful vote earlier this month never happened.

Republicans would be no closer to the finish line than when they yanked the original package off the floor before a likely failed vote in March. A re-vote scenario would have transformed the Trump Administration’s splashy, victory lap ceremony at the White House into a public relations disaster. Remember President George W. Bush landing on an aircraft carrier just months after the Iraq war? Recall the gigantic “Mission Accomplished” banner festooned behind the President?

These circumstances would have dwarfed that public relations fiasco.

But alas, the CBO says the bill saves money. This suggests it should comply with the Senate’s “Byrd Rule,” named after the late Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, D-WV. Otherwise, Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough would immediately strip non-complying provisions from the legislation. Doing so would bounce the health care bill from the elite reconciliation status, subjecting the plan to a Democratic filibuster. Any filibuster under conventional Senate rules likely torches the entire enterprise.

In 2009, House Democrats passed their own health care bill. But later the House drew up a bare, basically empty budget reconciliation “shell” and shipped that to the Senate. The Senate then stuffed its final version of Obamacare into the shell and returned it to the House for final passage. One wonders why House Republicans didn’t okay their health care package outside of the reconciliation window and then adopt a separate “shell” for the Senate to complete the job. That way, House Republicans would get a lot of say on their own bill – even if that isn’t the item which likely appears at the finish line.

Paul Ryan did not want to send Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY,  an unworkable product. That’s one of the reasons the House held onto the bill. Ryan and others waited for CBO clearance. Still, the Senate plans to write its own bill and run that measure through the reconciliation traps. But so far, there’s no plan which commands 51 Senate votes.

“They’re stuck,” proclaimed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY. 

Maybe. But for now, the CBO score - while not great - keeps the health care measure alive for another round in the Senate.

The CBO report did present Republicans with a problem: How the GOP wishes away the spike of an additional 23 million people who lack health coverage. That’s an easy campaign line for Democrats. Perhaps that’s why so many Republicans rushed to undermine the CBO. There are questions as to whether Republicans would have embraced the CBO had the report been nothing but gumdrops and rainbows.

It’s not.

But the CBO score is just good enough to maintain the health care effort.

And that’s all Republicans were hoping for at this stage.