A lack of confidence in the legislative process is complicating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's effort to corral enough Republican votes to open the floor debate on repealing Obamacare.
The freewheeling procedure for debating Republican legislation to overhaul healthcare in the Senate calls for hundreds of proposed amendments to receive a floor vote, providing both parties ample opportunity to alter the bill.
But with Democrats unanimously opposed to the Better Care Reconciliation Act, a handful of Republicans — more than enough to kill BCRA — are hesitant to vote to begin this process, which is known as "reconciliation."
Along with many Senate Republicans who do plan to vote for the "motion to proceed" with the debate, they fear that the bill is cooked and that McConnell and his leadership team will block any attempt at substantial change.
"We're concerned about that, yeah," Sen. Jeff Flake said Thursday.
The Arizona Republican said he was undecided on the procedural vote to open debate, explaining that he first wanted to explore whether amendments he might propose would get a vote and what threshold they would be subject to, 51 votes or, because of certain parliamentary hurdles, 60.
Sen. Ron Johnson plans to vote to open debate on BCRA and is encouraging his colleagues to join him.
But the Wisconsin Republican, a critic of the leadership-driven approach to crafting the bill that excluded the policy committees, has low expectations for a robust amendment process, which is commonly referred to as a "vote-a-rama."
"By and large that's been the reality of the situation, so, if you just kind of look at past vote-a-ramas, unless it's, ‘we support the troops,' or ‘mom and apple pie,'" it's hard to get amendments passed that significantly adjust the shape of the bill as introduced. "But, the process is what it is."
Under Senate rules, debate on legislation cannot begin until members approve a "motion to proceed." Bills considered under reconciliation, like the healthcare bill, require only 51 votes to open the floor debate; 60 votes are needed for all other legislation.
In past generations, senators would routinely vote for the motion to proceed, regardless of their position on the underlying bill. That would come into play on the up-or-down, simple majority vote on final passage.
But over the years, this procedural vote has come to be equated with voting for or against the legislation in question.
Political activists have honed in on it as another line of defense against bill they oppose. Members, worried they won't be able to amend the bill to their liking during the debate, have found more leverage in negotiating changes in exchange for supporting the motion to proceed.
A veteran Republican lobbyist with Senate ties blamed leadership for resorting to a more controlled, closed process for writing bills.
This operative said that a byproduct of this approach has been senators losing faith in the legislative process, although this individual also chastised the rank-and-file for resisting the inherent compromise that comes with successful lawmaking.
"They believe they should be able to define the final product before they vote," the GOP lobbyist said, on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly. "We're in a weird environment where every member thinks they can control the outcome with their vote."
The revised version of the Senate healthcare bill to partially repeal Obamacare, introduced Thursday, still lacks enough Republican votes to pass. Democrats are unanimously opposed, and Republicans can lose only two votes, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking the tie. Pence and President Trump are urging them to move swiftly to approve the bill.
Some undecided Republicans have committed to vote for the motion to proceed to begin the floor debate, which is scheduled for next week. But other undecided Republicans and GOP opponents, at present more than two, are declining to support this key procedural vote.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Republican Conference chairman and third-ranking party leader, conceded that suspicion about what can be accomplished during the vote-a-rama is challenging leadership's ability to whip enough votes to begin debate.
Still, Thune's sympathy only went so far. He noted that the amendment process under reconciliation was among the most open in the Congress and that it's up to individual members to persuade their colleagues to support their proposals.
Thune also dismissed complaints about the closed process. "If we keep talking about this, we've talked this to death. At some point you've got to start making decisions," he said.
The senator said that most Republicans agreed that running BCRA through committee would have only empowered Democrats to slow it down and emphasized that all members consulted during the drafting process overseen by McConnell.
"This is not final; it's not final until we vote on it at the end of the process, not the beginning of the process," Thune said. "Our members are going to have to decide whether we want to go down a different path than what we have with Obamacare."