The House of Representatives finally passed a bill to gut Obamacare and many conservatives are upset. Admittedly the bill is not full repeal. It is far from perfect. If I was going to write a health care reform plan, the American Health Care Act would not be it. Still, I’m very glad that the House passed the bill and I fervently hope that the Senate moves the legislation forward. Why? Because it is the only health care reform that has any chance of passing.
Many myths have grown up around Obamacare and the Republican repeal and replace effort. Over time, we have forgotten that Obamacare was not passed by a budget reconciliation. “HR 3590, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” was passed on Christmas Eve 2009 after a cloture vote by 60 Democrats ended a Republican filibuster. It was a traditional bill that requires a traditional bill to repeal.
So, what was the controversy about the budget reconciliation? After Scott Brown (R-Mass.) was elected to the Senate, the Democrats could no longer break Republican filibusters. If the Democrat-controlled House amended the ACA, it would be subject to another cloture vote, which the Democrats would lose. The answer was to have the House pass the bill unchanged and use the budget reconciliation process to pass a second bill, “HR 4872, The Healthcare and Education Reconciliation Act,” by a simple majority vote. This bill was subject to the same limitations that the GOP now faces in passing their own budget reconciliation.
Even though Republicans hold the presidency and control both houses of Congress, they were not granted a blank check by voters. A full repeal would require 60 votes for cloture in the Senate and there are only 52 Republicans. The mathematical problem is obvious.
But what about the 2015 repeal bill that was vetoed by President Obama, you may ask. Republicans didn’t have 60 votes in 2015 either, but they passed a repeal bill then. Why can’t they do it now?
The answer is that the 2015 repeal bill was not a full repeal either. The 2015 bill, was also a reconciliation bill that carried the unwieldy title, “HR 3762 To Provide for Reconciliation Pursuant to Section 2002 of the Concurrent Resolution on the Budget for Fiscal Year 2016.” The text of the bill states in Section 102 that the ACA “is amended,” not repealed.
If the 2015 bill was better that the AHCA of 2017, it is for two reasons. First, there were 54 Republicans in the 114th Congress where there are only 52 now. The GOP could afford to lose more votes in the Senate in 2015 that it can today.
Second, four Republican senators who voted for the 2015 bill now say that they won’t vote for a bill that does not provide for a phase out of the Medicaid expansion. Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio,) Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) refuse to back the same bill that they voted for two years ago. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) voted against the 2015 bill and would presumably do so again. Other Republicans are reluctant to repeal the popular provision concerning pre-existing conditions. It is these five senators and House moderates, not the Republican leadership or President Trump that are forcing a more watered-down version of the bill.
Some conservatives suggest that Republicans should get rid of the filibuster to pass a repeal. We wouldn’t need 60 votes then and the Democrats will probably kill it anyway the next time they have a majority, they argue.
The problem with this strategy is that full repeal could not even win a simple majority vote. The five Republican defectors in the Congress and the Tuesday Group of 50 Republican moderates in the House would kill it.
Removing the filibuster would also mean that Democrats would only need simple majorities to replace Republican health care reform with a national single-payer system the next time they control both houses of Congress and the presidency. It would also usher in a host of other bad ideas from gun control to a higher minimum wage to higher taxes to onerous regulations on practically everything. It is true that Democrats might one day choose to remove the filibuster, but it is certain that if Republicans remove it now, for no strategic reason, Democrats will have a field day when they return to power.
What, then, are the options for Republicans on Obamacare? One option is to wait and hope for a filibuster-proof majority. If you favor this option, be aware that the last time that Republicans had a 60-vote majority was the 61st Congress from 1909 to 1911. It is extremely likely that before the Republicans get a supermajority, Obamacare will implode, health insurance premiums will skyrocket, insurance companies will cancel policies and hell will freeze over. I have little doubt that if Republicans hold out for the perfect, full repeal bill that I will die of old age with Obamacare still intact. (I’m only 45.)
Waiting until 2018 might give the Republicans a few more votes to craft a better compromise. It is also possible that two years into the Trump Administration, voters might deliver a rebuke to Republicans in the form of Democrat majority in either the House or Senate that makes any sort of conservative impossible. In any event, it is doubtful that the numbers would change enough in the GOP’s favor to justify putting off a cornerstone promise of the campaign for two years. The longer Republicans wait to take action, the more entrenched Obamacare will become.
A better option is to take baby steps toward the full repeal of Obamacare starting now with the AHCA. The current bill has the support of moderates as well as the Freedom Caucus and has decent chance of becoming law. While far from ideal, it is a reasonable bill that can hopefully be improved further in its journey through the Senate. Even if it became law in its current form it would mark a vast improvement over Obamacare.
The Republican reform bill should not be viewed as a final step, but as a first step toward total repeal. Without a supermajority, it may take years of nibbling at the edges of Obamacare to fully repeal the behemoth, but conservatives have to start somewhere. The logical place to start is the bill that has the support of the two disparate factions of the GOP. The only bill that has a chance of becoming law.
Conservatives must decide whether it is worth trading a chance to gut Obamacare now to wait for a perfect bill in the distant future. The answer should be obvious. We should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of good and the possible.
Seize the day and start saving American healthcare!