Senate OKs Obamacare Repeal Despite Veto Threat

Senate OKs Obamacare Repeal Despite Veto Threat
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The Senate voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and defund Planned Parenthood Thursday evening, clearing a nearly six-year hurdle that kept previous attempts to undo the health care law from reaching President Obama’s desk.

Though Obama has vowed to veto the bill, it passed, 52-47, with just two Republicans, Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Susan Collins of Maine, joining all Democrats in voting against it. Independent Vermont Sen. (and Democratic presidential candidate) Bernie Sanders did not vote.

The legislation would repeal major parts of the president’s signature policy achievement, including the individual and employer mandates and Medicaid expansion, which would be aborted after a two-year delay. The legislation would also revoke all federal funding of Planned Parenthood, moving that money to community health centers instead.

Republicans have been vowing to repeal and replace Obamacare for more than five years, voting dozens of times to dismantle key aspects of the law. This marks the first time Obama will actually have to bring out his veto pen to save the landmark law, as congressional Republicans used a budget procedure known as reconciliation to bypass the 60-vote threshold in the Senate. A similar, less expansive version of the repeal measure already passed the House, and the Senate bill will likely have little trouble there given Republicans’ large majority.

“Americans are living with the consequences of this broken law and its broken promises every day,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday morning. “Its negative effects are often felt in the most personal and visceral ways. And Americans are tired of being condescended to. They want change and they want a bridge to better care, not Obamacare. This bill offers it.”

Though Republicans have voted repeatedly to repeal the law, Democrats are eager to use this latest vote as a wedge issue in 2016, particularly when it comes to closely contested Senate races. Four Republican senators running in states Obama won in 2008 and 2012 – Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Rob Portman of Ohio and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania – voted for repeal, while Kirk voted against. 

The reason Democrats think this particular effort is a political winner is because of the Medicaid aspect. Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and New Hampshire all expanded the program under the ACA, allowing thousands of people to get health care coverage. Those are four of the states Democrats have targeted in their efforts to regain the Senate majority and Democrats are attempting to cast this vote as Republicans taking that benefit away.

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, who is challenging Ayotte next year, criticized her opponent for supporting the package, citing the Medicaid and Planned Parenthood portions in particular.

“I’m extremely disappointed that Kelly Ayotte has consistently put corporate special interests and her party's leadership ahead of New Hampshire, and that she has vowed to vote yet again to repeal New Hampshire’s bipartisan Medicaid expansion plan and defund Planned Parenthood,” Hassan said in a statement Thursday.

Ayotte spokeswoman Chloe Rockow responded: “Governor Hassan should stop misrepresenting Kelly’s position on this issue and tell New Hampshire voters whether she supports the harmful provisions in Obamacare like the medical device tax and the individual and employer mandates that New Hampshire families and businesses have said are crushing them with higher costs.” Ayotte’s office also highlighted her role in securing $1.5 billion for substance abuse issues in the legislation.

Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Republicans are talking about “taking away health services” through both Medicaid and Planned Parenthood and said it’s an issue Democrats will highlight in 2016 races.

“When they pursue these really ideological positions, it does more harm and it is something that they’re going to have to talk about and it’s something we’ll do our job to make sure voters are hearing about,” Passalacqua told RealClearPolitics.

Republicans, however, have successfully campaigned against the Affordable Care Act in the past and haven’t seen electoral fallout for votes to repeal it. Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Democrats’ attacks are misplaced.

"How many election defeats will it take for Democrats to learn that ObamaCare is unpopular and hurting families?” Bozek said in an email. “No matter how desperate their attacks get, nothing will help them overcome the real consequences ObamaCare has had on American families.”

Most of the vulnerable Republican senators didn’t shy from the vote – and even promoted their support. Johnson and Portman both gave speeches on the Senate floor in favor of the repeal bill, and Johnson proposed an amendment, which was rejected, that would have allowed people to regain their health care plans from before the law’s implementation.

Toomey, when asked whether he was concerned about repealing the Medicaid expansion, replied: “I’ve been on record in favor of completely repealing Obamacare for a long time and I’ve not changed my opinion on that."

Portman argued that the vote wasn’t in fact all that difficult, even though he’s in a tough race.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for me to let the people of Ohio know how I feel about the Affordable Care Act,” Portman said.

As for Medicaid, which has been popular in Ohio after Republican Gov. John Kasich, a presidential candidate, chose to accept the expansion, Portman pointed to the two-year delay and said it would be untruthful for Democrats to accuse him of taking away health care.

“What it says is — knowing the president is going to veto it — what it says is if we had our way, we’d come up with a better Medicaid reform,” Portman said. “It does not repeal Medicaid, it actually extends it for two more years even though it repeals other things, and it says during that time period, the new Congress, the new president would work out a better way to cover people who are uninsured.”

Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is up for re-election in 2016 and faces a tough primary challenge in addition to the general election, said Wednesday that he would have trouble voting to repeal Medicaid after his governor and state legislature had decided to expand it, admitting that the vote would “provide me with discomfort.”

“I am very reluctant to take positions that counter the decisions made by the governor; as a federalist, I believe that it puts me in a difficult position,” McCain said, though he voted for repeal.

Most of these arguments are for naught, however, as Obama vowed to veto the bill. In issuing that threat, the White House said the ACA is “working and is fully integrated into an improved American healthcare system.”

“Rather than refighting old political battles by once again voting to repeal basic protections that provide security for the middle class, Members of Congress should be working together to grow the economy, strengthen middle-class families, and create new jobs,” the White House wrote.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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