Senate plans vote on ‘skinny’ healthcare bill in marathon session – Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Republicans embarked on Thursday on another push to unravel Obamacare, planning a vote on a stripped-down bill after failing to pass broader legislation and complete a seven-year campaign to gut a law that extended health coverage to millions.

While Republican leaders hoped a so-called skinny bill can draw enough votes to pass despite unified Democratic opposition, they still had not unveiled its contents as they headed to an expected marathon succession of votes that promises to drag into Friday morning.

“What there is a consensus on, I don’t think anyone knows,” Republican Senator John Kennedy said.

No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn said his party was working on a plan to repeal Obamacare’s mandate that Americans must obtain health insurance or face a fine, as well as a partial repeal of the mandate that employers with more than 50 employees provide healthcare coverage.

Speaking on the Senate floor, he said the bill will be called the Freedom to Choose plan. But he gave few details, and said “we’ll be hearing more” about the plan later.

As outlined by Cornyn, the plan would repeal a few key provisions of Democratic former President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law, known as the Affordable Care Act, without being a far-reaching overhaul.

“We’ll be voting later on this evening. It’s coming together. You’ll know it when I know,” Cornyn said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the other Republican leaders held a lunchtime meeting lasting more than two hours with his party’s senators to try to reach a consensus.

The skinny bill is expected to eliminate requirements under the 2010 Affordable Care Act that individuals obtain health insurance or face a fine and that businesses with more than 50 employees provide medical coverage. There was also discussion about abolishing a tax on medical device manufacturers, but it was unclear whether that provision would be included.

“I urge everyone to keep working hard so we can get this over the finish line,” McConnell said earlier on the Senate floor.

Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley criticized the Republicans for pursuing a “secret plan” that would be “debated in the middle of the night.”

The House of Representatives passed its own broad healthcare overhaul bill in May.

Senator Lamar Alexander said the skinny bill itself “is not a solution” to resolving what he sees as the problems with Obamacare. But he urged fellow Republican senators to pass it in order to set up a committee of House and Senate lawmakers to meld the two competing versions into a single comprehensive bill that would be wider in scope than the skinny bill.

“We’re on a path to a solution,” Alexander said on the Senate floor.

Republican President Donald Trump, who has expressed exasperation that Congress has not yet sent him a healthcare bill even with his party controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, weighed in again early on Thursday.

“Come on Republican Senators, you can do it on Healthcare. After 7 years, this is your chance to shine! Don’t let the American people down!” he wrote on Twitter.

The Senate was set to embark later on Thursday on a so-called vote-a-rama, a byproduct of the special process under which the bill was brought up that avoids the need to win 60 votes in the 100-seat chamber for passage. This entails a rolling series of votes that would potentially involve scores of time-consuming amendments that can be offered by any senator.

Republicans then hope to move to a straight yes-or-no vote on their healthcare bill.

‘Single-Payer’ Vote

In a bit of political gamesmanship that appeared intended to embarrass liberal Democrats who have long advocated a so-called single-payer, government-run healthcare system, McConnell had the Senate vote on a plan offered by Republican Steve Daines to create such a system even though Daines and other Republicans oppose the concept.

But Democrats did not take the bait, and the measure fell flat, losing 57-0, with 43 Democrats voting “present” rather than yes or no.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer called the Republican decision to hold a vote on the provision “pure cynicism.”

Schumer blasted the skinny plan, citing estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that it would result in 16 million Americans losing health insurance over a decade and raise insurance premiums by 20 percent in January.

Republican Senator Bob Corker said after the lunch that senators were not so concerned about the content of the skinny bill as much as they were seeking assurances that it is not an end in itself, but a vehicle to reach a House-Senate conference.

“Do you really want to vote on something that doesn’t do a whole lot?” Corker asked.

Republican Senator Roy Blunt said he favored putting into the skinny bill “whatever can get 50 votes, in addition to repealing the two mandates.”

Republicans control the Senate by a 52-48 margin. They can afford to lose only two Republican votes to secure passage, with Vice President Mike Pence casting a tie-breaking vote.

Trump and many other Republicans campaigned last year on a pledge to repeal and replace what they view as a failing law that constitutes government intrusion into people’s healthcare decisions. Democrats noted that Obamacare has extended health insurance to 20 million Americans.

Republicans have faced an internal rift over how to replace Obamacare, with hard-line conservatives seeking a bill that thoroughly scraps it and moderates unwilling to support measures that could strip tens of millions of people of their health insurance.

The Senate voted 55-45 on Wednesday against a simple repeal of Obamacare that would have provided a two-year delay so Congress could work out a replacement plan. Seven Republicans opposed the bill. On Tuesday, senators rejected the broad repeal-and-replace plan Republicans had worked on since May.

The biggest health insurer lobby, America’s Health Insurance Plans, sent a letter to McConnell reiterating that uncertainty over the healthcare system would drive premium rates higher for 2018.

Insurers’ final rates for plans offered through Obamacare are due to be submitted to the government in mid-August, and without a government commitment to pay certain subsidies, insurers would be forced to raise premium rates another 20 percent, the group wrote.

Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Yasmeen Abutaleb; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Doina Chiacu, Amanda Becker, David Morgan, Caroline Humer and Susan Heavey; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Frances Kerry

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