As House GOP tries to revive health-care reform, Democrats emboldened to stop it

The Republican debacle over health care gives Democrats momentum in their efforts to preserve Obamacare. And they have procedural tools that bolster their leverage. 

Andrew Harnik/AP
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., right, and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland, left, react at a joke from Rep. Eric Swalwell (D) of California, center, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, March 24, 2017.

After the spectacular collapse of the repeal-and-replace effort last Friday, some Republicans contemplated reaching out to Democrats to fix Obamacare, which is still the law of the land.

The White House emitted a few bipartisan signals from the press secretary about working on health-care reform. Rep. Peter King (R) of New York urged President Trump to broker a political peace with fellow New Yorker Senate minority leader Charles Schumer. And the minority leader, as well as other Democrats, expressed a willingness to work across party lines to improve the law – if the GOP stopped trying to repeal and undermine it.

But House Republicans chose a different path. After a Tuesday morning meeting with members in their basement conference room, GOP leaders came before reporters to announce that the repeal-and-replace effort was still on – though no timeline has been set.

“We are all going to work together and listen together until we get this right,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin told reporters. “There’s too much at stake to get bogged down” in internal GOP divisions, he said.

It’s hard to say whether House Republicans will find enough GOP votes to agree on a plan – one hard-liner was already off the reservation trying to force a repeal-only bill to the floor. But the doubling down is not discouraging Democrats. If anything, they are emboldened.

Republicans “empowered us and weakened themselves,” said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California in a luncheon with reporters Tuesday. “They not only lost their own moderates, but they lost public opinion.”

With huge fissures publicly exposed among House Republicans, and the dealmaker-in-chief unable to close the first big legislative deal of his presidency, Ms. Pelosi is now in a stronger position to exercise leverage. She counts public opinion, the budgetary process, and the courts as levers to be exercised in the fight to keep and improve the Affordable Care Act.

“She’s in the catbird seat,” says Jim Manley, Democratic strategist and  former spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who retired last year.

A particularly helpful lever in her toolbox is the appropriations process – all of the coming budget and spending deadlines that could well exacerbate GOP divisions and cause Republicans to seek Democratic votes. Additionally, appropriation bills have to get past a 60-vote threshold in the Senate – necessitating at least some Democratic buy-in.

Protecting Obamacare 

Pelosi is canvassing her caucus to identify areas in which to improve the Affordable Care Act – such as finding ways to lower the cost of prescription drugs, something Mr. Trump has advocated, and to shore up the individual insurance marketplaces. Prices have risen sharply and choices diminished in these exchanges in many parts of the country.

She is also going to keep a bright spotlight on Health Secretary Tom Price to see if he tries to further erode Obamacare by pulling federal subsidies that help consumers pay for coverage and by not enforcing penalties associated with the individual mandate.

“Speaking to the president or even speaking to the Republicans, they hear it better if it goes through the public,” she said, in an answer to a reporter’s question about how she could work with Republicans if they stick to a replace-and-repeal strategy.

Additionally, insurers could well sue the administration if it tries to remove the federal supports that make coverage viable, she said.

On other topics, she expressed openness to tax reform and identified infrastructure as a place where the two parties could get to work. 

Pivot to tax reform

As House Republicans try to patch up their differences on health care, they and their Senate colleagues are moving on to tax reform – another big item that they hope to accomplish on their own, through the same go-it-alone special procedure that they used for their stalled repeal-and-replace effort.

The lessons of last week may force the White House and Republicans to go for a less ambitious reform package. Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, speaking with reporters Monday, said he’ll personally reach out to Democrats on his committee, though whether they will join in is another matter.

Senate Democrats are in a fighting mood. Senator Schumer has said he will block the president’s budget proposals to build a wall and increase federal immigration forces.

Gorsuch opposition

Meanwhile, it looks as though Democrats may have the votes to prevent Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch from clearing a 60-vote confirmation threshold when the nomination is expected to come to the Senate floor next week. That could force Republicans to unilaterally do away with the threshold for high court justices – allowing all future justices to be approved with a simple majority vote.

Such a move would be “tragic,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D) of Delaware, in an interview on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" on Monday. “In talking to friends on both sides of the aisle, we’ve got a lot of senators concerned about where we’re headed.”

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake warns against resisting Trump just for the sake of resistance – though she does not put opposition to Gorsuch in that category.

Rather, working with Trump on issues that Democrats care about – such as lowering prescription drug costs or a jobs-creating infrastructure bill – would be a win for Americans and thus a win for Democrats, she says.

Now is the time for Democrats to show what they are for, she says. “We should offer alternatives."

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