GOP Fears Health Care Fail Could Thin Senate Majority

GOP Fears Health Care Fail Could Thin Senate Majority
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Senate Republicans have a favorable electoral map in 2018, with far more Democrats up for re-election, including in states President Trump won last year. But there is growing concern within the party that a failed vote on Obamacare this week could imperil the GOP’s effort to expand the Senate majority next year.

After months of negotiations and weeks of false starts, Republicans will finally move ahead Tuesday on a procedural vote to begin debate on their Obamacare measure – though as of late Monday, it was unclear precisely what would receive a vote after the procedural motion – repeal with a replacement, or repeal alone. 

GOP leaders expressed confidence they would secure the votes to start debate on the measure Tuesday, and some Republican senators said there was momentum in favor of the vote Monday evening. If GOP senators do vote to support debate, the political consequences will shift based on how the bill is changed, and whether the final, amended version can pass the Senate. 

Either way, there has been strong opposition from both the moderate and conservative wings of the party.

For the few Republicans up for re-election next year, including Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona, the vote could be central to Democrats’ efforts to defeat them. While most of the senators opposed to the GOP plans are not up for re-election next year, the effort still has a significant impact on the party’s chances in 2018.

The favorable map makes it unlikely that Republicans will lose their Senate majority – unlike the House majority, which many Republicans admit could be in play next year. But there is concern that failure on the measure could imperil their chances to knock off the 10 Democratic incumbents running next year in states President Trump won.

In particular, Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia have been two of the most vocal senators opposing the replacement plans, concerned about the impact Medicaid cuts could have on their states. Neither is up for re-election next year, but Republicans had considered their Democratic colleagues, Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to be two of the most vulnerable next year. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has also spoken out against the GOP plan, and Republicans plan to target Sen. Tammy Baldwin in her re-election in the Badger State.

Josh Holmes, a Senate GOP strategist and former chief of staff to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said there was “no question” that opposition from GOP senators made it more difficult to challenge Democrats in those states.

“There has, up until about four weeks ago, been an incredibly clear contrast between the Republican position on health care and the Democratic support of Obamacare,” Holmes said. “To say that that has been muddled a bit, I think, is an understatement.”

Capito, Portman and Johnson have not backed away from their support for repealing and replacing Obamacare as a principle, but Capito and Portman have expressed serious reservations about the party’s replacement plan. And despite voting in 2015 to repeal the measure outright, with a two-year delay to craft a solution, both said they oppose that strategy now. They haven't indicated how they'll vote on Tuesday's measure to proceed.

“The reality is that the president is going to sign this bill. I think that’s a big change,” Capito said in a local radio interview last week, defending the switch in position. She emphasized that in a meeting with all GOP senators last week, Trump himself pushed for repealing and replacing the ACA. “I don’t think that it’s a responsible way to repeal something, have everything fall off a cliff in two years, have more people uninsured, have no plan in front of us. I want to see the plan in front of us so I can stay consistent with my repeal-and-replace votes in the past.”

Trump spoke to thousands of Boy Scouts at a national jamboree in West Virginia Monday evening – and singled out the state's GOP senator, saying Republicans "better get Sen. Capito to vote for it." He was scheduled for a campaign rally in Ohio Tuesday evening. 

Democrats have noticed the GOP opposition and think it will be a useful tool in making the case against the GOP efforts on Obamacare.

"The fact that even Republican senators are speaking out against the GOP’s health care plan should tell you everything you need to know about how toxic their agenda will be on the campaign trail,” said David Bergstein, spokesman for Democrats’ campaign committee.

Manchin and Brown have avoided politicizing their GOP colleagues’ position on the health care bill, focusing on their own opposition to repealing Obamacare and the impact it would have in their state – though they have also proposed bipartisan conversations to fix certain aspects of the law. But Manchin did express support for Capito’s position Friday. 

“I’m just very proud of her,” Manchin said of Capito last week. “A lot of pressure was on her. She made a tough decision, but she knows her state the same as I know my state – very, very well. This is something we talked about just couldn’t happen.” 

Some Republicans think that opposition from Republican senators could help the case of challengers seeking Democratic seats. One GOP strategist, who requested anonymity to avoid criticizing Republicans, said outsider candidates in West Virginia could use GOP opposition to further their own case – arguing either in Ohio or West Virginia that with two senators voting against repeal, the state needs to elect someone who would vote for the measure. 

But in an interview on a local radio program last Friday, Rep. Evan Jenkins – one of two candidates running in the primary to challenge Manchin next year – defended Capito’s position even while touting his support for the House repeal measure that passed in May. 

“You will not hear me criticizing Sen. Capito for the due diligence with which she is approaching this very difficult, challenging issue,” Jenkins said. “She’s looking at the proposals being presented in the Senate, not from the House. I have a wonderful working relationship with Sen. Capito and appreciate the hard work that she puts into it.”

His primary opponent, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, has also struck a similar position to Capito. In a local newspaper interview after his announcement earlier this month, he said, “I would sit in for as long as it takes to repeal Obamacare, preserve Medicaid and protect it for those who need it.”

But Morrisey was endorsed by the conservative group FreedomWorks, which sent an email last week labeling Capito a “fraud” – along with Portman and Maine Sen. Susan Collins – for her opposition to the repeal-only strategy.

In Ohio, state Treasurer Josh Mandel is likely to face Brown in a campaign next fall. But Mandel has long opposed the state’s Medicaid expansion – his website says he “did everything he could” to prevent the expansion – which puts him at odds with both Portman and Gov. John Kasich.

Yet some Republicans caution that if the health effort fails, it’s unlikely that it will be a central campaign issue a year from now, particularly with an ever-changing news cycle and myriad issues to focus on against Democrats in Trump states. If Obamacare isn’t a successful campaign issue for them, Republicans say, they simply won’t spend television money advertising on it, and will seek other ways to animate their base ahead of the midterms.

But Holmes, the former McConnell aide, argues it would have serious consequences for the party. 

“The worst-case scenario for Republicans is they miss the opportunity to make conservative reforms and as the insurance market collapses, they are forced to engage with Democrats on a whole-sale insurance bailout,” he said. “From a policy perspective it’s a disaster, and from a political perspective it’s a catastrophe.”

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

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