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The skinny repeal plan appears to have been news to Republican senators

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Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) (L) and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI)
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Mere hours before being faced with a vote to move forward on a health care debate, senators were still getting their information on the health care bill from reporters.

Republican senators are planning to vote on a motion to proceed to debate on health care Tuesday. But the morning before the vote, senators still didn’t know what it would be on.

Reporters were asking them questions about a “skinny repeal” bill, an idea two sources told Vox’s Dylan Scott and Jeff Stein would be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s last-ditch effort to get enough votes to pass any kind of health care bill. The skinny repeal would do away with the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, the employer mandate, and the medical device tax but would leave Medicaid expansion and most of Obamacare’s regulations intact.

Republican aides had floated the skinny repeal to reporters over the past week, but not with any level of seriousness. Suddenly, it seemed like the only possible way to get Republicans to agree on health care reform — and it was news to Republican senators.

"The idea is to let people vote on what they want to vote on," Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the majority whip, told reporters Tuesday.

Except Republican senators aren’t sure this is what they want.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who heard about skinny repeal from reporters, said the idea is “rather unsatisfying.” Asked if it was better than nothing, he just shook his head — adding that he would have to hear the plan in full before deciding whether to vote to move to debate on it.

Johnson — and the entire Republican Senate conference — is now very close to a key vote to decide whether to move to debate on health care. So far, the only thing that has become established is a sense of deep uncertainty.

As the Senate barrels toward a vote, confusion and frustration among their GOP ranks

Tuesday morning, asked when he had first heard of the skinny repeal plan, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) stood silent and smiling.

“It was nice to see you,” he said instead, as the Senate tram doors closed. Few wanted to comment on something they hadn’t seen.

Johnson instead spoke to process: He was beyond frustrated, he told reporters.

“They keep claiming this is an open amendment process — I suppose in theory it is, but I think it is pretty obvious whatever ends up happening is that leadership decides what’s in the final package because the hurdle to pass amendments is so high,” he said.

McConnell will hold a vote on a motion to proceed to debate on a health care bill Tuesday afternoon when Sen. John McCain returns from Arizona, where he has been recovering from brain surgery. He told senators about that plan Tuesday. But until now, they’ve been kept in the dark.

“I don’t know whether we are proceeding to the House bill, a new version of the Senate bill, the old version of the Senate bill, the 2015 ‘repeal and hope we come up with something in two years’ bill — I truly don’t,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said last week, reiterating the statement Monday night.

Now there is another possibility to add to the list: the skinny repeal.

Collins said she did not know how she would vote on a skinny repeal. Johnson, too, said he would have to consider McConnell’s full pitch.

Senate procedure requires Republicans to first vote to proceed to a floor debate on the health bill the House sent over in May. McConnell can then substitute the House bill with whatever bill he wants a vote on. Senators can also offer unlimited amendments during the process.

It’s not at all clear when the skinny repeal bill became a serious option for Republicans. Asked when he first learned about the idea, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), whose own amendment to the Better Care Reconciliation Act — the Senate’s revised health bill — will now need 60 votes for passage because of Senate rules, said “there have been ongoing discussions within the conference for many months.”

Repealing only the individual and employer mandates and a tax is a far cry from the complete Obamacare overhaul Cruz and his conservative colleagues have been fighting for, but Cruz seemed ready to support it nonetheless.

“There’s no doubt that repealing the individual mandate and the employer mandate are good, positive steps,” he told reporters. “I hope we can do far more and provide really meaningful relief for rising premiums.”

After months of arm twisting to no avail, this might be the only way to move something back to the House.

“I think this is a legislative process,” Cruz said. “This is a journey. We are not there yet.”

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