Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday the Senate is unlikely to pursue a repeal and replacement of Obamacare next year, bowing to the reality of a narrower Republican majority in 2018.
McConnell said on NPR on Thursday that the Senate was unable to repeal and replace Obamacare with a 52-48 majority earlier this year, and indicated it will be even tougher with one less Republican. Democrat Doug Jones won an upset victory against Republican Roy Moore in Alabama this month, narrowing the GOP margin even more in the upper chamber.
"We'll have to take a look at what that looks like with a 51-49 Senate," he said. "But I think we'll probably move on to other issues."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who led an Obamacare replacement bill with Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., told reporters that moving away from repeal would "be a mistake."
McConnell appears to be satisfied with the repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate in the tax reform bill. The mandate forces everyone to buy health insurance, and experts have warned without it, younger and healthier people will go away from the law’s exchanges and cause them to crater.
"I think the repeal of the individual mandate takes the heart out of Obamacare," McConnell said. "We want to steady the insurance markets if we can... and I think we'll probably be addressing that part of healthcare sometime next year."
McConnell was referring to two Obamacare stabilization bills that Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, was hoping to get passed by the end of the year. Collins and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said they abandoned plans to insert the bills into a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government until Jan. 19. That bill needs to be passed this week because the government runs out of money on Dec. 22.
Republicans tried to repeal and replace Obamacare this summer. However, three Republican senators joined all Democrats to defeat a “skinny” repeal bill in early July that repealed the individual mandate, among other provisions.
Graham and Cassidy spearheaded a new repeal bill in September that gave Obamacare funding to states through block grants and cut traditional Medicaid. However, that bill was pulled in September after too many Republicans defected.
Republicans tried to pass both bills under a procedural tool called reconciliation, which allows bills to be advanced and passed in the Senate by only 51 votes instead of 60 needed to break a filibuster.
However, next year the Senate can only afford to lose two Republican senators with its slim 52-48 majority. Vice President Pence can break a 50-50 tie.
But Republicans are not happy that McConnell is shying away from a major legislative priority next year.
“I think that’s a huge mistake,” Graham told reporters Thursday. “I think we should do everything we can to replace it as much as they did to pass it.”
Graham wasn’t too concerned about the narrower majority next year.
“I think we can grow the vote,” he said. “There were a couple of ‘no’ votes around process.”
Graham’s close friend in the Senate, John McCain of Arizona, dramatically voted down the “skinny” repeal bill due to concerns about the process used to draft the legislation. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, also voted against the “skinny” bill.
Despite McConnell's prediction, Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said that there is still a “possibility that we might” go back to Obamacare repeal.
“[McConnell] has the opportunity to maintain the schedule and he knows he has one less Republican to work with for a while,” he said. “I think you might find some support for moving block grants for the states.”
It remains to be seen if the White House is going to feel the same way about moving on from Obamacare repeal in 2018.
The White House supported Graham-Cassidy but recently said that it is open to other proposals.
“We are definitely committed to further reforming the system … We are open to all sorts of alternatives on how to deliver much better options than Obamacare,” a senior White House official told the Washington Examiner.
Kimberly Leonard contributed