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Senate Republicans are officially almost out of time to repeal Obamacare

We have a deadline: September 30.

US Capitol Bill Clark / 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 Republicans will lose their special privileges to repeal Obamacare without any Democratic votes at the end of this month, the Senate parliamentarian ruled Friday.

Reviving Obamacare repeal was always unlikely, but the parliamentarian’s decision comes one step closer to slamming the door shut. While a looming deadline might mobilize some conservatives to push for action, a packed calendar and the desire of many of their colleagues to move on to other issues makes such a Hail Mary very challenging.

When Senate Republicans sought to repeal Obamacare earlier this summer, they did so through the budget reconciliation process. That process allows a bill to advance with only 51 votes, instead of the usual 60, which was essential to passing an Obamacare repeal bill: Republicans have only 52 members, and no Democrats would support repealing the health care law.

But the window for using budget reconciliation will soon close, according to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is the ranking Democratic member on the Senate Budget Committee. Sanders said in a statement that the Senate parliamentarian, who oversees the chamber’s arcane procedural rules, has decided that the current budget reconciliation privileges would expire at the end of September, the last day of this fiscal year.

When Congress passed a budget resolution earlier this year, it gave Republicans reconciliation privileges through the fiscal year, which ends September 30. But once they failed to repeal Obamacare, some Republicans had held out hope that they could keep the reconciliation process alive after September 30, as long as they didn’t pass a new budget resolution, and come back to it later.

On Friday, we found out the parliamentarian disagrees.

Congress has a lot to do in September

After the parliamentarian’s ruling, the timeline becomes incredibly difficult for any Republican who is still clinging to hopes of Obamacare repeal.

Congress must fund the federal government before the end of September and raise the federal debt limit. Some kind of relief package for Hurricane Harvey is also likely to be in the mix. If President Donald Trump takes action to remove existing protections for DREAMers — unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children or young teenagers — that could add another item to the agenda.

On top of that, some senior Senate Republicans have started negotiating with Democrats on a very narrow Obamacare market stabilization bill. Any last-ditch revival would complicate those talks, which a number of top Republicans have endorsed.

After the end of September, Republicans would have to pass a new budget resolution for 2018 to regain reconciliation privileges to repeal Obamacare. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already said he wants to use next year’s reconciliation bill to pass a tax overhaul.

Even if combining the two issues in a new reconciliation bill is technically possible, it could be politically treacherous. Obamacare repeal and tax reform are difficult on their own; putting them together could spell doom for both.

Obamacare repeal has never truly died. But the time might soon be coming.

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