Senate Democrats are preparing an all-out war to try to save the Affordable Care Act.
With limited tools at their disposal, their plan is to hammer Senate Republicans for their secrecy, spotlight elements that would throw millions of people off their health coverage and fuel enough public outcry to make Republicans eyeing re-election fights very nervous.
The reality is that Democrats can’t really stop the Republicans who are using Senate budget rules that let them pass repeal legislation with only 50 votes and no chance to filibuster.
But alarmed by the GOP urgency to press ahead with repeal, they are lining up a two-track effort to try to save the Affordable Care Act: They plan a sustained attack on Republicans’ hypocrisy for ramming through a bill with no committee hearings after the GOP blamed Democrats for years for passing Obamacare with no Republican votes.
And when and if the bill comes to the Senate floor, Democrats will use every tool at their disposal to try to slow it down, from challenging the parliamentarian’s decisions on the arcane rules, to forcing a high-profile and lengthy series of amendment votes to shine light on the legislation.
A lengthy vote series, they say, could bring the bright lights of cable news, Twitter, activists and others to the process – and potentially even delay a June vote and force the GOP to endure a July recess when Democratic allies will mobilize in the states.
“We should mount a pretty epic stand if they get this bill to the floor,” said Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who has been a leading Democratic voice on defending the Affordable Care Act. “They’re hoping that the Russia scandal drowns out the fact they’re ready to steal health care from 23 million Americans to give a tax cut to their wealthy friends. We’ve got to make sure when this bill comes to the floor that the entire country is focused on what Republicans are doing.”
Republicans haven’t yet finished work on their bill, but its House counterpart would roll back the health law’s Medicaid expansion and lead to 23 million fewer Americans insured in ten years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The way to invigorate Democratic voters, senators said, is to focus outrage on the partisan track that Republicans are taking and how little public information is available about it.
“There is a sense of helplessness about it and a sense of urgency about it,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said on Tuesday morning after a party leadership meeting. “There’s also a sense: We’ve got to make sure the American people understand what’s happening here.”
If Republicans bring their Obamacare repeal bill to the floor using a Senate procedure called reconciliation, Democrats cannot filibuster the legislation. Liberal activists are pressing leaders to halt all Senate business in protest of the Republicans, but that idea is not under consideration, senators said.
But Democrats do have vote-a-rama — a Senate procedure in which Democrats can force votes on an unlimited number of amendments. In theory, they can force votes for as many hours or days as they have amendments to offer, as long as senators are willing to vote every 15 minutes.
“There are a lot of Americans who I think aren’t as focused on this bill as they should be,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), pointing to all the attention on the firing of former FBI Director Jim Comey and the Russia investigation. “Outside the Capitol, it’s basically sunk off the radar screen. The advantage of having a several day long vote-a-rama, it would not just force some debate on amendment, it would also elevate the visibility of it.”
A counter strategy under discussion would be to offer no amendments at all. The theory, which some House Democrats pushed in that chamber, is to make the case that no amendment would make the repeal bill better.
In the interim, the party has at least a few days to try and get the repeal effort back on the front pages of newspapers and the top of newscasts to refocus public attention.
On Tuesday morning, as leading Senate Democrats gathered to plot a way forward, senators honed in on a video clip of McCaskill excoriating Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) over the GOP’s secretive process that went viral last week.
Some discussed a growing sense that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is using the Russia investigation and Trump’s war with Comey to distract attention from the health care debate and pass a bill with less scrutiny.
That’s hurting Democrats’ ability to rally the type of opposition that temporarily derailed the House’s repeal bill, they said.
People “were so engaged during the House consideration because they realized it is such a clear threat,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). “Because rumors were that Republicans wouldn’t be able to come to an agreement themselves in the Senate, people started engaging in other organizing on other issues.”
Some of the Democratic opposition will focus on procedure and take place behind closed doors. Democrats plan to challenge as much of the bill text as they can before the Senate parliamentarian, the nonpartisan staffer who has to decide if the bill fits the Senate process the GOP is using.
Democrats will argue that parts of the bill – such as anti-abortion language in the tax credits – don’t comply with the Senate requirement that every provision of the bill pertains to the budget.
There are also some outstanding questions about whether there is enough savings under the jurisdiction of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
If the parliamentarian sides with Democrats, Republicans would have to delete the language or try to rewrite it.
Short of knocking out some bill text, Democrats are left with few other options than to mount a process argument that even some Republican senators are in the dark about what is in the replacement bill.
Democrats say they are going to sift through the House and Senate process in 2009 and 2010 and confront Republican lawmakers with specific examples of OP amendments being adopted, contrasting it with a GOP process without open hearings or public sunlight.
Outside advocacy groups say that may not be enough. Indivisible, a liberal activist group, wants Democrats to stop all Senate action over the effort to repeal the law. They want Democrats to withhold consent to allow committee meetings or new legislation to make a point of protest.
“There should be no business as usual in the Senate,” said policy director Angel Padilla. “That is the only tool they have and they should use it.”
Democrats have ruled out stopping all action, though, believing it would be counterproductive to derail the approval of new Russia sanctions, for example. They also believe that protesting unrelated nominees and legislation would distract from health care and potentially unify Republicans to pass the repeal bill.
“My hope is that we don’t even have to consider that,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).