Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to put Paul Ryan’s American Health Care Act up for a vote within one week if it clears the House of Representatives on Thursday afternoon.
“We’re not slowing down,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday. “We will reach a conclusion on health care next week.”
Many Republican senators say they’ll have his back — no matter how loudly Democrats scream that the bill is moving too fast.
“We’ve had seven years to talk about this. We’ve had plenty of time,” said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-AL) in an interview. “I think there’s been plenty of contact between the House and the Senate. We’ve had plenty of opportunity to think about it, there will be plenty of opportunity to amend it, and I suspect we’ll vote on it by the end of next week if the House votes on it this week.”
Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) also raised no objections when asked if the projected time frame was too truncated. “I don’t think so. We’ve all watched Obamacare unravel for the last several years, so the sooner we can get to repealing it, the better off we’ll be,” he said.
Asked if next week would be too soon to hold a vote on a bill that wasn’t released until a few weeks ago and was still being radically altered this week, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) shook his head: “No, no, no: Next week will be fine. The sooner the better,” he said in an interview in the Capitol. “Whether there’s hearings or not, I don’t know.”
Speaker Ryan’s bill looks uncertain to get through the House on Thursday, with the latest whip count putting support for it under the 238 votes it needs to pass. But if it does, much of the Republican Senate caucus sounds ready to move on it with dramatic speed.
Republicans may object to the bill more than its speed
Once the bill passes the House, Senate Republicans will begin debating it sometime early next week, says McConnell spokesperson Don Stewart in an interview.
That process will kick off with 20 hours of debate on the Senate floor, Stewart said. Then senators will get the opportunity to offer amendments to the AHCA. After that, there will be a “vote-a-rama,” when each amendment is considered for 10 minutes before being approved or rejected.
As Vox’s Matt Yglesias writes, the bill will face the opposite problem in the Senate that it faced in the House. Whereas House conservatives to the right of congressional leadership have been able to pull the bill in their direction, in the Senate it’s the moderates in the “Coverage Caucus” — those who want AHCA to keep the health care expansions under Obamacare — who pose the greatest threat to its survival.
If the moderate senators revolt against the bill, it’s hard to imagine it will move as fast as McConnell wants it to. Already, more than 12 Republican senators have criticized the bill, and Republicans can only afford three defections and still pass it.
For now, many Republican senators say the substance of the bill is their focus, rather than the speed of its implementation. “Honestly, the more important thing is, ‘Do you have something that will be passed over here?’” said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in an interview, citing his concern with cuts to Medicaid that insure hundreds of thousands of people in his state. “I think that’s much more important than the timing.”
Others were similarly noncommittal about the timeline. Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) wouldn’t say either way whether the new timeline was too fast.
“We’ll see,” he said. “We have to see what the House does, but if they pass it, then we’ll go to work on it.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), also seen as a relative moderate and potential defector from AHCA, said, “I don’t know,” when asked whether McConnell’s timetable was too fast.
“In the Senate, it’s going to take a while because it’s just the process we have,” he said. “We’ve been considering this for a while and negotiating it. We have other things to do as well. So it’s important we do this quickly.”
Senate Democrats strategize how to knock down the bill
Democrats on the Hill were quick to rip McConnell for announcing that he’ll rush the bill through.
“They know how unpopular this is; that’s why they’re moving so fast. That’s the primary implication — they know millions of people will get hurt,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH).
Brown also argued that the crunch to speed along the process reflected Republicans’ ignorance about the contents of their bill.
“I would imagine if you could sit down with no staff and no notes with any cross section of 15 Republican House members, you could ask them 10 questions about what this bill is about and then get 10 different answers. They don't know. They don't know,” Brown said.
Similarly, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) also attacked the speed of the bill.
“This will be devastating, which is why McConnell is trying to fast-track it,” she said of the bill. “It’s way too soon. They should have hearings where everyone can participate, including the public.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer held a meeting with Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). They planned to argue to the Senate parliamentarian that the new Medicaid work requirements and abortion restrictions violate the rules of budget reconciliation, according to a senior Senate aide.
Like many Senate Democrats, they also prepared to make the case that Senate Republicans were rushing their AHCA bill much too fast — particularly given the opposing party’s longstanding objections to how Obamacare was rammed through Congress in 2010.
“I want to bring up all of the quotes from seven years ago [during Obamacare’s passage], when we were criticized even when we were on the floor for 20-plus days, when there were 13 hearings in the HELP committee alone,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA). “The irony is both sides realize that when you legislate [in] a hurry, only with your team, you end up with a product like this.”