(Bloomberg) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is taking a risk by calling for a bipartisan health care plan if the Republican-only Affordable Care Act change bill fails: While his comments may encourage conservatives to fall in line with his approach, party moderates may be emboldened to abandon the GOP legislation.
McConnell told a home-state Kentucky audience Thursday that if Republicans can’t “agree on an adequate replacement, then some kind of action with regard to the private health insurance market must occur.”
His remarks to a Rotary Club luncheon in Glasgow could serve as a warning to holdout conservative Republicans most ideologically opposed to Obamacare — but also may give wavering moderates cover to oppose the GOP plan, which combines tax cuts and deep reductions in health spending.
Republicans can’t leave the Affordable Care Act untouched, as insurers are pulling out of some areas, but prospects of a dramatic rewrite are dimming under the party’s wafer-thin 52-48 majority, analysts said. Republican leaders can lose no more than two votes in their party amid united Democratic opposition.
“It’s what you might call bipartisanship at gunpoint,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “Republicans have to do something. They can’t do nothing. It is clear that McConnell with all of the legerdemain of a veteran magician has not been able to put together 50.”
McConnell was forced to delay action on the measure last week after about half a dozen Republicans objected. He has spent the July 4 recess studying possible revisions that might win support of holdouts once he unveils a new plan as early as the week of July 17. Republican leaders have indicated they want to move on to other issues, including a tax-code overhaul, if they can’t agree on a health bill before a month-long August break.
The conservative group Heritage Action urged Republicans Friday to stick with their promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Working with Democrats “will be catastrophic for the party,” which for seven years has pledged “it is the party of repeal,” Michael Needham, Heritage Action’s chief executive officer, said in a statement.
Needham warned that bipartisan legislation “would embolden Republican moderates as they continue to hold out in attempt to keep as much of Obamacare on the books as possible.”
Senate Democratic leaders have said they would be willing to consider a measure that would bolster the Affordable Care Act public health insurance exchange programs, which have been buffeted by decisions by top insurers to exit the market in regions of Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota and many other states.
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Democrats have accused President Donald Trump of injecting uncertainty in those markets by not providing clear support for the Affordable Care Act public exchange plan cost-sharing subsidies that help lower-income people buy individual coverage on the exchanges.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer treated McConnell’s remarks as a breakthrough.
“As we’ve said time and time again, Democrats are eager to work with Republicans to stabilize the markets and improve the law,” Schumer said in a statement Thursday. “At the top of the list should be ensuring cost-sharing payments are permanent, which will protect health care for millions.”
Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said the reaction was overblown because McConnell had said last week after a White House meeting that Republicans may “have to sit down with Senator Schumer” on a pared-back bill if the GOP-only effort dies.