WASHINGTON — Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said Friday evening that he’s hearing “cautious support” from fellow Republicans regarding his alternative approach to breaking the legislative stalemate on health care.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters after an event Friday in his home state of Kentucky that the current health care proposal remains challenging, but “we are going to stick with that path.”
Sasse’s proposal — which received a tweeted endorsement from President Donald Trump — is that Senate leaders continue their efforts to produce a combined repeal-and-replace bill over the next week.
But if they have not succeeded by July 10, Sasse says Congress should pass the same repeal legislation approved and vetoed in 2015 — with a one-year implementation delay. He wants Congress to then dive into intense six-day workweeks aimed at voting on a replacement by Labor Day.
Sasse stressed that he is still hopeful McConnell’s work on a combined bill can be successful.
“That’s why I’ve been working on it for so many months and have been supportive of the leader’s attempts to try to bring together a coalition — even though there are a whole bunch of things that under a McConnell plan I would have to compromise about,” Sasse said.
But if a deal fails to come together, the twin goals of repeal and replace can be pursued in sequence rather than in tandem, Sasse said.
The prospect of a backup strategy is welcomed by those who want to deliver on campaign pledges to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, but are worried that the current approach won’t succeed, he told The World-Herald.
“And yet most people don’t want to emotionally admit that the current plan doesn’t look to be fruitful right now,” Sasse said.
His alternative approach drew public skepticism from some fellow Republicans.
In addition to McConnell, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., told CNN there’s no guarantee Congress would ever actually be able to pass the replacement piece.
“Sometimes on deadlines we still don’t get things done,” Kinzinger said. “You can’t leave the American people out like this. This is how sequester happened: because we thought we could fix the problem, and never did.”
Kinzinger was referring to sequestration, the automatic budget cuts approved a few years ago with a delayed implementation. The idea was that those cuts were so universally undesirable that they would force lawmakers to strike a deal to avoid them.
But that deal never came together, the cuts took effect and now military leaders say their budgets are strapped as a result.
In response to a World-Herald request for comment on Sasse’s proposal, a spokeswoman for Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., cited the same sequestration result as an example that congressional strategies to create urgency on issues can create bad outcomes.
“Establishing cliffs has never worked well in Congress,” Brianna Puccini said.
She said Fischer will keep talking to Nebraska leaders for feedback and working on a legislative solution to health care.
McConnell has been trying to strike deals with members of both factions of GOP senators in order to finalize a rewritten bill lawmakers can vote on when they return to the Capitol the second week of July. Even before Trump weighed in, though, it wasn’t clear how far he was getting, and Trump’s tweet did not appear to suggest a lot of White House confidence in the outcome.
Sasse laid out in a letter to the president Friday morning the idea of repeal coupled with canceling the monthlong August recess to work on replacement.
“This two-step plan to keep our two promises — both repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a system that provides affordable and portable health insurance — seems like a no-brainer to this gym rat,” Sasse wrote, referring to the snarky nickname Trump has tried to give Sasse.
Perhaps more importantly than any formal correspondence, Sasse touted the idea during an early morning appearance on the Fox News morning program “Fox and Friends.”
Trump is a fan of the show, and within minutes he had tweeted, “If Republican Senators are unable to pass what they are working on now, they should immediately REPEAL, and then REPLACE at a later date!”
“We are agreed,” Sasse quickly tweeted back. “We need to break the logjam.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has also talked this week about pushing forward on simple repeal.
The Koch network, a group of small government advocacy groups backed by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, advocated this approach in a January position paper. Sasse last weekend participated in a Koch network retreat in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Friday it appeared there was GOP support for at least part of Sasse’s proposal: canceling recess. Fischer has said she’s willing to work through the August break.
And separate from Sasse’s letter, a group of 10 GOP senators, including Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, wrote to the Senate majority leader asking that he cancel the August recess if lawmakers fail to make “meaningful progress” on five priorities: health care, funding the government, addressing the debt ceiling, passing a budget resolution and overhauling the tax code.
Sasse is hoping his suggestion will create both political pressure for action and a fresh slate.
The Nebraska senator made his expertise on health care a key point of his campaign for office, saying that he would be uniquely qualified not just to help repeal the ACA but to craft its replacement.
While other Republican senators have grabbed more of the public spotlight during the health care debate thus far, Sasse has said he’s been talking frequently with Vice President Mike Pence behind the scenes. Sasse often talks about the importance of portability, or allowing people to carry health insurance coverage across geographic lines and jobs.
Sasse points out in his letter to Trump that all but one of his current Senate Republican colleagues — Susan Collins of Maine being the exception — either voted for the 2015 bill or campaigned on the ACA repeal.
That means they should all be willing to support that legislation now, he wrote.
The argument overlooks that many GOP members — particularly those from less-conservative states — would be wary of voting for a repeal with no guarantee that a replacement plan would ever materialize. If Congress were to pass the 2015 repeal bill again and Trump signed it, more conservative Republican lawmakers might be satisfied and not feel the need to back any replacement plan.
Anything Republicans do on their own must thread a tight needle. With a slim 52-48 Senate majority they can lose only two of their own and still get a majority with the vice president’s tie-breaking vote.
But Sasse said passing repeal first would bring Democrats off the sidelines to work on legislation that could then pass through the regular process that typically requires 60 votes.
“If you’ve repealed, they’ll all be involved in the conversation again,” he said of the Democrats. “And so my math is 60 of 100 is a heck of a lot easier than 50 of 52.”
If Republican Senators are unable to pass what they are working on now, they should immediately REPEAL, and then REPLACE at a later date!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 30, 2017
This report contains material from the Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune.