Vice President Pence had something to share last Monday night. He had flown to Birmingham, Ala., to stump for now lame-duck Sen. Luther Strange, Alabama Republican, a day before the state GOP Senate runoff.
“There’s good news as we speak,” bragged the ever-optimistic vice president. “The Senate is close to legislation to repeal and replace.”
Just hours before, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Texas, and Susan Collins, Maine, signaled their opposition to the health care bill engineered by fellow GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina, and Bill Cassidy, Louisiana.
Senate Republicans could only lose two of their own and have a puncher’s chance to pass the bill last week. But Cruz and Collins brought the nays to four.
Still, Pence was undaunted.
So too was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when he took the floor Tuesday. The Kentucky Republican didn’t commit to putting the latest GOP health care legislation to a vote before a special legislative deadline that expired this weekend. He instead revived a trusty GOP talking point.
“After years of ObamaCare’s failures, its higher costs, diminished choices and collapsing markets,” McConnell said, “it seems this is the best our Democratic friends can come up with.”
McConnell knew he didn’t have the votes to advance the Graham-Cassidy measure -- perhaps the best Republicans could come up with. The GOP can’t even squeeze a health care bill through both bodies of Congress and onto the President Trump’s desk. But the Democrats sure did some years ago with ObamaCare.
A few hours later, Republicans huddled with Pence at the GOP’s weekly party conference luncheon at the Capitol. McConnell & company decided to sideline the health care bill for the time being.
But you may have not gotten that impression if you listened to the remarks of Senate Republicans after they concluded their meal.
“I’ve asked Sen. Graham and Sen. Cassidy to come forward now and give you their sense of where we are on that issue,” McConnell said. Not McConnell’s sense of where Senate Republicans stood, but the perceptions of his colleagues.
“Where we’re at is we’re on the path to pass Graham/Cassidy/Heller/Johnson,” observed Graham enthusiastically, tacking on the names of GOP co-sponsors Sens. Dean Heller, Nevada, and Ron Johnson, Wisconsin. “We know what we don’t like. ObamaCare is not working. We make that case effectively. But we’ve had a hard time articulating what we’re for until now.”
Maybe so. But the bill never hit the floor.
“We’ve made the decision since we don’t have the votes, we’ll postpone that vote,” Cassidy conceded. “Am I disappointed? Absolutely.”
But is the plan dead?
Not according to the president of the United States.
“We have the votes on Graham-Cassidy,” Trump said.
The president then went on to blame the most-recent death of health care reform on the absence of Mississippi GOP Sen. Thad Cochran -- a yea voter who was hospitalized.
“Long before the November (2018) elections we’re going to have a vote and we’re going to get that through and I think we’ll get it through easily,” Trump predicted.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., hinted there was a ploy behind Trump’s decision to challenge the NFL and National Anthem protests.
“The president is the deflector-in-chief,” she said. “Any time he's going to lose a health care bill, an election in Alabama, whatever it is, he's got something else he's going to try to divert attention to.”
But Republicans remain fixated on eliminating the Affordable Care Act, informally known as ObamaCare.
North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker, chairman the Republican Study Committee, the House’s largest bloc of conservatives, explained why the GOP maintains its 8-year-old fight to upend ObamaCare.
“If you expect a seven course meal & you’re handed a saltine … ,” said Walker, his voice trailing off.
Graham worries about the wrath of voters if Republicans fail -- again.
“We’ll get killed,” he said. “Can you imagine if we don’t fulfill this promise at end of day with the House, Senate and White House and ObamaCare crumbling before our eyes?”
And so, the ObamaCare obsession continues.
On Friday, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, released a budget package for tax reform.
However, he built into the blueprint a narrow provision to potentially try again to repeal and replace ObamaCare without facing a Senate filibuster.
It’s unclear if an ObamaCare repeal-and-replace measure could be tacked onto tax reform. However, it’s possible that such a combination could be a poison pill if GOP leaders join them.
“We must be ever vigilant,” warned Pelosi of the never-ending repeal-and-replace crusade. “They're talking about doing it next year. It's like a zombie. It keeps rising up, and we have to keep putting a stake in its heart.”
What drives this fanaticism about health care? It’s complicated.
First, there are problems with ObamaCare and the law. Republicans and many Democrats would genuinely like to address those provisions. Secondly, as Graham says, repeal and replace is a long-standing touchstone for Republicans.
The GOP wants to make good on the mother-of-all-campaign promises. Finally, there’s an X-factor. It is harder to discern but palpable.
What drives Republicans up the wall is that Democrats managed to run all of the parliamentary traps and artfully thread the legislative needles in such a way that they passed ObamaCare.
This foments a jealously among Republicans who, to this day, are stunned Democrats outplayed them in 2009 and 2010 on the health care law. Granted, Democrats controlled the House, Senate and White House. Guess who controls those bodies now?
The health care issue has crawled under the skin of congressional Republicans. It viscerally eats at them that they can’t enjoy the same legislative and success on such a complex issue as health care reform.
How long will this ObamaCare canvassing last?
“In my opinion, this will continue until such time as the Democrats take one house or the other or both,” predicted House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
Close to repeal and replace as the vice president suggested? “On a path” to approve Graham-Cassidy as Graham asserted? Hardly. Yet the preoccupation remains.
Dismiss the merits and demerits of ObamaCare for a moment. What gnaws at GOPers is that like it or not, former Democratic President Barack Obama, Pelosi and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, passed the Affordable Care Act.
That fact and that fact alone simply drives Republicans bonkers.