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Democrats ready to gum up Senate agenda over GOP’s health care secrecy

The battle in the Senate is escalating.

Alex Wong / Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

Senate Democrats say they’re prepared to obstruct as much of the chamber’s business as they can to force Senate Republicans open up their health care debate to the public.

The maneuver is an escalation in the Senate’s debate on repealing and replacing Obamacare. Republicans are developing their health care plan in secret, completely forgoing the usual process of holding public committee hearings and having experts testify about proposed legislation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made the calculation that it’s better to have a secretive process and rush a bill to the floor, given the House’s raucous, if abbreviated, debate and the deep unpopularity of its bill.

Some Republican senators have blanched at the behind-closed-doors process, but haven’t committed to voting against the bill in protest. Democrats had been reluctant to shut the Senate down, as they do have some power to do, but today’s news marks a notable change in tactics for the minority.

Democrats can’t completely stop the Senate’s business or prevent Republicans from producing a secret health care plan and trying to rush it to the floor. But they can make the process more painful by blocking routine Senate business, as Vox’s Jeff Stein wrote recently. The move also helps draw attention to the almost-unprecedented opacity being deployed by the GOP.

Starting Monday night, Senate Democrats will start objecting to most unanimous consent requests, according to a senior Democratic aide.

Those requests are routine in the Senate and allow committee hearings to go forward and uncontroversial bills and nominations to be expedited to the floor. (Exceptions could be made for some honorary resolutions, the aide said, like those honoring the victims of last week’s congressional shooting.)

“It can slow the Senate’s work a lot,” the aide told me. “Rather than having unanimous consent to process a nominee instantly, or a bill, it can take a nominee four days, a bill at least that long, if not longer.”

The aide wouldn’t say how long Democrats would keep up their protest, though it is expected to continue beyond Monday if Republicans did not immediately relent. Monday is a relatively slow day for the Senate, but the rest of the week is packed with committee hearings and expected votes. McConnell is believed to be pressing ahead to hold a health care vote before July 4.

“If Republicans won’t relent and debate their health care bill in the open for the American people to see, then they shouldn’t expect business as usual in the Senate,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in a statement.

McConnell’s office demurred when asked about the Democratic strategy.

“I don’t have any guidance on what they have planned this week,” a McConnell spokesperson said. “But we’re debating and voting on nominations over the next few days.”

In addition to blocking the GOP’s unanimous consent requests, Democrats are expected to make their own motions to send the House’s health care bill to committee and will make floor speeches highlighting the Republican secrecy over their health care plan.