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When (and How) the Roll Is Called Up Yonder (Part I)

Senate floor activity has made this the ACA’s biggest news week not involving Justice Roberts, but whatever news you have read, rest assured that it wasn’t really that simple.  Let us preach on it.

Shortly after noon EDT on July 25, Senator McConnell announced a vote on a motion to proceed to debate the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 2810), which actually proved to be a vote on a motion to proceed to debate the House-passed American Health Care Act, H.R. 1628.  With the Vice President providing the tie-breaking vote, that motion passed and debate commenced.

Shortly thereafter, Senator Cruz (R-Texas) offered what’s been called a “skinny plan” amendment that would allow sellers of ACA-compliant plans to sell cheaper alternatives lacking some of the coverages mandated by the ACA.  However, since that amendment, standing alone, would not be filibuster-proof, Senator Cruz needed a waiver of the related budget reconciliation rules.  The motion to waive those rules needed 67 votes, but got just 43.  The roll call showed nine Republicans voting with all Democrats to deny the waiver.

Senator Donnelly (D-Indiana) then moved to send H.R. 1628 back to the Senate Finance Committee (not the Budget Committee) with Medicaid-protective instructions.  The Senate recessed until 9:30 am EDT July 26, then to resume debate, with a vote on the Donnelly motion set for 11:30 am July 26.

This would be the most edgy health care vote taken since March 2010.  Should Senator Donnelly succeed, Democrats would keep the bill alive, at the risk that committee Republicans might get their act together and come up with something that could attract 60 votes later.  Don’t laugh.  It could happen.  Old dogs can and do learn new tricks.  By defeating the motion, Republicans would tee-up a reconciliation rules vote on something yet unseen that might fall short of even 50 votes, thus wasting a one-shot, filibuster-proof process that could have been used to pass tax reform or infrastructure spending, or both.  Indeed, that specter might have motivated some of the nine votes against the Cruz amendment rules waiver.

We watched every minute of hours of persistent, partisan hyperbole that commenced as scheduled on Wednesday morning.  For clarity, consistency and calm reason, the remarks of Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) stood out, except that he was lauding the bill as he would amend it, stripping all the “replace” and leaving only the “repeal.”  At 12:13 pm, Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) successfully sought to waive a quorum call and to delay the scheduled 11:30 vote until 3:30 EDT, then debate resumed.  The future of healthcare was earnestly guaranteed to be Utopian or Hellish, depending on how fellow Senators voted. Would that Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, and P.J. O’Rourke had live-tweeted it.

At 12:50 pm, Senator Thune (R-South Dakota) hopefully forecast that keeping the bill on the floor for amendment would lead to final passage … days later.  In a lucid interval from 1:07 until 1:20 pm, Senator Donnelly tried to redirect the debate to the motion actually before the chamber but he, too, succumbed to the tragedian temptation and the next speaker (Senator Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland) reviled the “nasty DNA” of all Republican “wealth care” proposals, urging Senators to “kill the bill, don’t kill us.”  Nothing is more common than regression to the mean.

Beginning about 2:00 pm, Senator Cornyn (R-Texas) first turned the discussion to the specifics of H.R. 1628 but then returned to the ACA’s evils, Democrat “single payer” desires and associated, asserted motives for obstruction.  Senator Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) responded with an offer of bipartisanship, in the future, with regard to some unspecified but “common sense” solution, if Republicans would first surrender their “harsh, unsustainable” ideas.  Senator Durbin (D-Illinois) made an eloquent appeal for a return to “regular order,” reading from the recent floor speech given by Sen. McCain (R-Arizona).  But, starting at the bottom of the hour, Senator Wyden (D-Oregon) raced back to the bottom, targeting President Trump and “Trumpcare.”  Not to be outdone, Senator Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) then called H.R. 1628 a “shameful, deceitful mockery of democracy,” before closing with a call for mutual respect and civility.  That took us to 2:42 pm, when your humble correspondent mumbled, semi-consciously, “Sharknado, take me now.”

Senator Johnson (R-Wisconsin) rose to offer amendments, one of which would require members of Congress to obtain ACA-compliant health insurance through ACA exchanges.  Each amendment related to the text of H.R. 1628, not to the motion being debated.  Senator Enzi took the floor again at 3:05.  He reviewed how the same partisan reconciliation process was used to pass the ACA in 2010, how many material changes were made by the prior Administration’s “executive actions,” and how premiums soon will “surge” if Congress fails to make other needed changes now. Again, nothing about Senator  Donnelly’s pending motion.  After a quarter hour of muted-mic floor silence, Senator Strange (R-Alabama) made a short plea for consensus opposition to tax-funded abortions.

Fortunately, all things must come to an end, as this seemed to do, starting with a quorum call at 3:32, followed by a roll call vote … on Senator Paul’s amendment, which was defeated, 55 – 45.  Starting at 4:14 pm, the Clerk finally called the roll for the vote on Senator Donnelly’s motion to recommit H.R. 1628 to the Finance Committee.  On that one, Republicans stuck together and prevailed, 52 – 48.  Game on.

You thought we were done for the day?  Rookie.  Seconds after the Donnelly motion’s defeat, Senator Casey (D-Pennsylvania) moved to send H.R. 1628 back to the Finance Committee with instructions to protect in the bill all those protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, using in his speech an enlarged photo of a disabled constituent and accusing “obscene,” “repeal and decimate” Republicans of seeking to institutionalize people with disabilities.  Because, apparently, when “they” take the low road, “we” tunnel.

Senator Cassidy (R-Louisiana), like Rand Paul a physician,  ignored that bait and added a new Republican talking point: 37% of all ACA Medicaid expansion funds have been spent in just three states – California, Massachusetts and New York.  He then announced a forthcoming “Graham – Cassidy Amendment” to spread that wealth around.  In the best WWF tradition, Senator Cassidy then tagged Senator Graham (R-South Carolina), who used foam-core charts and an easel to explain that “we’re leaving the taxes on wealthier Americans in place,” in order to have the funds to convert Medicaid to state block grants boosting underfunded states without excessive cuts to overfunded states.  West Virginia, he said, would get a 43% Medicaid raise.  Montana Medicaid funding would double.   There was no ad hominem argument, no name calling – just observations and proposed solutions.  Apparently filling time, Senator Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) took the floor for a few minutes to praise President Trump and “my hero Jeff Sessions.”  Senator Enzi then announced that the next votes would be on the Heller Amendment (not yet described) and the Casey motion.

Senator Carper (D-Delaware) spoke at length on the recent history of federally-funded health care, noting that the Heritage Foundation originally conceived several solutions adopted by the ACA, including health insurance exchanges, as an alternative to the single-payer system proposed by Hillary Clinton in 1992-93.  “Romneycare” was prominently mentioned. If Republicans winced, they weren’t on camera.

After two more Democrats denounced “Trumpcare” and the vote-a-rama process, Senator Heller (R-Nevada) was recognized to tout the Heller Amendment.  However, he discussed only the desirability of Medicaid expansion protection, offering no details of his proposal.

Senator Duckworth (D-Illinois) then related a sympathetic story about a quadriplegic constituent and accused Republicans and President Trump of “threatening her life.”

Senator Casey rose again to try again to explain why ACA Medicaid expansion is needed to protect the rights created by the ADA, calling the Heller Amendment mere “sentimentality,” without any binding effect.

At 6:10 pm EDT, the Clerk began to call the roll on Senator Casey’s motion to recommit H.R. 1628 to the Finance Committee.  Republicans prevailed, 51-48, whereupon Senator Heller summarized his amendment, expressing the sense of the Senate that the bill is not intended to reduce Medicaid eligibility, benefits or coverage.  Senator Sanders (D-Vermont) interposed a procedural objection and Senator Heller sought a waiver, just as Senator Cruz had done, but won only 10 votes.

At 7:10 pm, Senator McConnell called-up an amendment proposed by Senator Daines (R-Montana).  Senator Schumer (D-New York) then announced that Democrats would offer no further amendment unless and until Republicans put on the floor a final bill offered for passage.

On the heels of that ultimatum, Senator Reed (D-Rhode Island) renewed the bipartisan cooperation offer made earlier by Senator Shaheen, then yielded the floor to Senator Franken (D-Minnesota), who decried the Republicans’ “reckless, irresponsible” plan to “gut Medicaid,” so as to deprive a named, autistic child of the “therapy he needs to thrive.”  Other examples followed.  Republican health care philosophy, he said, is “survival of the fittest.”  In closing, he urged his colleagues to “stand up to the lies.”

Following Senator Franken, we were treated to a speech by Senator Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) on the merits of a carbon tax.

Finally, just before 8:00 pm, Senator Enzi announced that debate on H.R. 1628 would resume at 10:00 am EDT July 27, with a vote on the Daines amendment set for 2:15 pm.  Who knew health care could be so complicated?