Senate Democrats on Tuesday would not say whether they would abandon a bipartisan effort on Obamacare if Republicans were to pass a bill to overhaul the tax code that would also repeal Obamacare's individual mandate penalties.
The Senate is currently writing the tax bill in the Finance Committee and is expected to add text that would dissolve the penalties for Obamacare's individual mandate, which obligates Americans buy health insurance or pay a fine and is one of the least popular portions of Obamacare.
To win over centrists, Republican leaders have said they would be willing to take up another Obamacare-related bill known as Alexander-Murray, which funds Obamacare insurer payments for two years in exchange for more flexibility for states to waive the law’s regulations. Despite having enough votes to pass the Senate, Alexander-Murray has not moved forward because President Trump opposes it, as do many House Republicans.
Sen. Patty Murray, the top-ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, who brokered the bipartisan Obamacare deal with Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., on behalf of her party, slammed Republicans for saying they would repeal Obamacare's individual mandate.
“This is the exact opposite of where we should be going ... It would make absolutely no sense to stabilize healthcare with one hand while devastating it with the other," the Washington Democrat said in a statement.
When asked during a phone call with reporters whether she would oppose Alexander-Murray now because of the decision to include repeal, Murray was ambivalent.
“I am really hopeful we don’t go down that path,” Murray said. “That is the exact opposite of what we should be doing.”
The Alexander-Murray agreement has been billed as a legislation that would help stabilize Obamacare in 2019 because government funding would allow insurers who offer plans at lower premiums. Democrats said, however, that gutting the individual mandate through a tax bill first would further destabilize the system.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the mandate's repeal would give Republicans $338 billion in tax savings over a decade, but also result in 13 million more people becoming uninsured over that time.
Republicans have said that these estimates are exaggerated, and CBO is looking into changing the way it does its analysis, but fewer uninsured would also mean fewer savings to the federal government. CBO has said the spending reductions would come as a result of decreases on Medicaid spending and decreases in spending on Obamacare plans. The government currently pays for subsidies that make premiums cheaper for about 8.7 million Americans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy research group.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters that the upper chamber should pass the Alexander-Murray bill, but other avenues exist, he said, such as the omnibus spending bill.
"We don't need to trade it for a tax bill and we won't," Schumer said.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., has also pushed back on exchanging one bill for another.
"Americans’ access to affordable health care is NOT a political bargaining chip," Udall tweeted.
Americans’ access to affordable health care is NOT a political bargaining chip.— Tom Udall (@SenatorTomUdall) November 14, 2017
16 patient and consumer groups stand opposed to the #GOPTaxPlan’s individual mandate repeal.
Join us in speaking out. We must defeat Senate Republicans' dangerous proposal and #ProtectOurCare. pic.twitter.com/zRbFJzZmfd
Other Democrats cast doubt on whether Republicans would be successful in repealing the individual mandate. One Obamacare repeal bill that failed this summer included repeal of the individual mandate, and failed after being voted down by all Democrats as well as three Republicans.
"What we learned today is this tax bill is now a moving target. It can change, apparently, every few hours. But the individual mandate provision is a backdoor effort to gut the Affordable Care Act," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., using the formal name for Obamacare.
Asked whether Democrats would block Alexander-Murray, Wyden replied, "As of now we're just speculating on what this may include. What we know is we are not going to be for a proposal that is basically a giveaway to multinational corporations and hurts the middle class. Those have been our kind of twin pillars in all of this."
He continued: "There have been a number of [Republicans] that have been concerned about unraveling the Affordable Care Act. I'm sure there will be an effort to say that's not what they're doing. These pieces are integrally connected. That's what their agenda is. It has failed three times: Trumpcare 1, 2, and 3. And they're still trying."
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who also worked on the Alexander-Murray deal, called the inclusion of the individual mandate penalty repeal a "big mistake."
Kaine, who had not yet heard that Republicans planned to take up Alexander-Murray in exchange for the individual mandate penalty repeal, noted that it was never supposed to be part of Alexander-Murray.
"Those of us who worked on that bipartisan deal, that wasn't part of the deal," he said. "What we need is bipartisanship in healthcare, we don't need to blow up the bipartisan effort there is."
Susan Ferrechio and Robert King contributed to this report.