Sen. John Barrasso has been waiting seven years for this.
Appointed to the Senate in June 2007, the Wyoming Republican has never served in the majority. That will change in a few weeks, when the GOP assumes command of the Senate for the first time in eight years. Like most Republicans and every GOP leader in Congress, Barrasso vows that his party will use this new opportunity to prove to the American people that it can govern responsibly and make their lives better.
But for the orthopedic surgeon who was known as “Wyoming’s doctor” before being elected to the state Senate in 2002, the prize in winning control of the U.S. Senate lies in the opportunity to reform a national healthcare system that has been remade over the past few years by President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. As chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, No. 4 in the chamber’s leadership hierarchy, Barrasso could be in a position to exert some influence.
In an interview last week, Barrasso laid out a slew of policy priorities for the first six months of the new year, the period when the GOP will have its best chance of passing significant legislation. But the senator who delivers regular floor speeches to offer a “doctor’s second opinion on Obamacare” made clear that repealing and replacing the president’s healthcare law is his top priority. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Washington Examiner: What is your one thing you’ve prioritized for next year for the GOP to accomplish with its new majority before the politics of 2016 make legislating difficult?
Barrasso: I think the Supreme Court may rule in a way that gives us an opportunity to correct a lot of the problems that the president’s healthcare law has caused for people. This isn’t Republican or Democrat. This is about people and their lives. And I’m telling you this as a doctor: I continue to hear problems all around the country related to the healthcare law. The president tells a story and people just know that it’s not true in terms of what they’re experiencing in their own lives. They can’t find a doctor to take care of them even though they have purchased Obamacare insurance. Their copays and their deductibles have gone up. Their premiums are going up the second year — one problem after another. And the president doesn’t want to hear about it, doesn’t want to see it, ignores it.
Examiner: So what is your strategy, legislatively, to attack this?
Barrasso: You’d like to repeal the whole thing. You certainly want to strip out the most damaging parts of the law. And I think the Supreme Court is giving us another opportunity this year with this King case.
Examiner: Would you favor using reconciliation — the Senate procedure that allows you to sidestep the filibuster — to go after anything in Obamacare that you could repeal according to whatever the rules will allow under that process? Medical device tax, restoring the 40-hour workweek, the individual mandate?
Barrasso: Some of those that you just mentioned are things that have already passed the House, have bipartisan support — you have Democrats on record in the House who voted to eliminate the medical device tax, actually eliminate the employer mandate, we have co-sponsors in the Senate, both sides of the aisle, on re-establishing the 40-hour workweek. These are not strictly along partisan lines, there’s bipartisan support for all three of those things. The opportunity we may have if the Supreme Court, in June, rules on King in a way that says all of these subsidies that the IRS has been paying are illegal and must stop, at that moment there is going to be an opportunity for us to move in with replacement legislation.
Examiner: But do you favor attacking Obamacare through reconciliation?
Barrasso: The answer’s yes.
Examiner: What can you accomplish in the majority?
Barrasso: I was in the state Senate in Wyoming and we actually legislated. We offered amendments on bills and voted on things. And that wasn’t the case here the last seven years that I’ve been in the Senate. And, when you look at how rapid the turnover has been in this body, I’m going to be 45th in seniority in January, which means that the majority of the people here have never been in a situation of actually legislating: amendments on the floor, and open discussion, and voting. So it’s going to be, I think, good to get back to regular order where committees actually play a substantive role and the floor does the same thing.
Examiner: I know this is something that incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to do. But do you think this is something he can maintain over time when eventually people get frustrated and impatient?
Barrasso: Well, we’ve talked through the campaign that we wanted to bring to the floor — bills that have already passed the House with bipartisan support. And we have lists of all of these bills that have gotten 18, 20, 30, 40 Democrats voting for them. And bills that have bipartisan sponsorship in the Senate — exporting liquefied natural gas, there are a lot of different energy bills, the Keystone pipeline is another — issues relating to the healthcare law, there are components with bipartisan support. So I think the way to show that we’re committed to governing is to bring bills to the floor that have already gotten bipartisan support in the House and bring them to floor of the Senate because we’re still going to need to get to 60, and we have 54, so you need to find Democrats, likeminded, who want to really get focused on jobs and the economy.
Examiner: Let’s talk about the challenge of getting 60 votes.
Barrasso: You do it by eliminating the excuse of saying, ‘I didn’t get to have a vote on my amendment.’ So when we bring these [bills] to the floor and allow people to offer amendments, I think they’re going to be less likely to want to be obstructive if they’ve had a chance to have a vote on their amendment. And when we get back to regular order and are bringing to the floor bills that have come out of committee in a bipartisan way, because there have been votes on amendments in committee . . . you get bipartisan support. It’s going to be much more likely that the people that have voted on both sides of the aisle out of committee will then vote for it on the floor and get it done that way.
Examiner: Do the newer and younger senators, who can tend to be in a hurry, need to be reminded by the veterans that the Senate is designed to operate a certain way?
Barrasso: From the discussions we’ve had at our policy lunch, some of those senators who have been here and remember how the Senate used to function with regular order — and Dan Coats is a great example, because he was in the Senate, and then he was out for 12 years, and he came back and he said he didn’t even recognize the institution. So he does talk about how regular order worked. So we’re going to continue to work at sharing those memories, experiences with new members coming in.
Examiner: On energy, what can you do, realistically, to push back on the administration’s EPA regulations and the president’s opposition to Keystone XL?
Barrasso: When Keystone — it got 59 votes, and . . . fewer than 50 of those were Republicans, the numbers were such that they had a number of Democrats who voted with us on that, and a number of them are going to be with us still, after the election. The same thing with LNG exports, I’ve got Democrat co-sponsors with me on that legislation. So it’s not really Republicans against the White House; it’s Republicans and Democrats against the White House. The Democrats are divided among their caucus, we’re united. So there are lots of issues right now where the Democrats are divided and the Republicans are united and those are the areas where we’ll move forward. The president’s ultimately going to have to decide, is he going to be held hostage by environmental extremists?