Congress Is Facing a Time Crunch to Repeal Obamacare
Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, told his Republican colleagues that they needed to vote on their health bill before the July 4 holiday — then he gave them an extension.
But don’t expect the health care debate to drag on forever. There are legal and political reasons that Republicans really do need to decide in the next few weeks whether their legislative effort will succeed or go back on the shelf.
The process could drag on past July, but there is tremendous pressure for Congress to act quickly.
Republicans chose to pass their health bill through a special budget process called reconciliation, which has a lot of rules. That choice has advantages — most important, it allows Republicans to avoid a filibuster and pass the legislation with 50 Senate votes (and a tiebreaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence), without any of the Democrats. But it also means that the health bill impedes other priorities.
Leaders want to use the same budget procedure to pass tax reform, but Senate rules allow only one such reconciliation maneuver at a time. That means that, as long as health care drags on, tax reform can’t move forward, unless Republicans can attract Democratic support under normal procedure (where 60 votes is needed for a filibuster-proof majority).
Inaction on health reform complicates some of the policy choices in tax reform, too. The current Senate health bill includes substantial tax cuts and several hundred billion dollars in projected savings. If that bill is not going to become law, it could alter the choices about which taxes get cut or raised as part of the tax-only bill.
If health reform isn’t wrapped up by the end of the month, it bumps up against Congress’s scheduled summer recess, a time when legislators like to go home to their districts, take a break from lawmaking, spend time with their families, and raise money. Many congressional staff members also go on vacation during the recess. Leaders could, of course, tell lawmakers and their staffs that they need to stick around and keep working until they pass a bill, but the scheduled recess tends to act as a deadline.
Obamacare repeal is a big political priority for Republican leaders and the White House. But several other bills need to pass to keep vital parts of the government working. Those are likely to take priority in the weeks after the summer recess. Congress will need to raise the debt ceiling, pass a reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and pass new bills to fund government functions, to name a few. In April, the last time Congress had an important must-pass spending bill, the health reform measure was pushed aside.
The health reform bill is attached to a budget for the 2017 fiscal year. The 2017 fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. At that point, the health bill could conceivably turn into a pumpkin, but experts in Senate budget procedure have differing opinions. A final determination would need to be made by the Senate parliamentarian.
If the fiscal New Year comes, and the parliamentarian rules the expired budget is irrelevant, Republicans will need to start from scratch on health care by passing a new budget for 2018 with instructions to reform the health system, and by passing a health care bill through the House again. Neither of those steps would be assured of success, and both would complicate efforts to pass a tax reform bill, which leaders hoped to tie to the 2018 budget process.
Mr. McConnell had hoped that speed would be his friend in passing the health bill through his chamber. His staff drafted much of the bill in secret, and he hoped to bring it up for a vote a week after first making its details public.
That strategy didn’t work, we now know. But since that missed deadline, more Republican senators have publicly stated their opposition to the bill. During last week’s July 4 recess, several crucial senators heard criticisms of the bill and voiced strong critiques, according to reporting from my colleagues who attended their town hall meetings. The divisions in the caucus don’t necessarily doom the measure: House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled his health bill from the floor, then passed an amended bill a few weeks later. But so far, it looks as if consensus is weakening even as the time pressures build.