The loss of one of Alabama's Senate seats to a Democrat adds another snag to the long-sought goal to overhaul Obamacare for Republicans, who already were falling short of the support they needed.
Even if a win had gone to Roy Moore, the failed Republican candidate, rather than to Doug Jones, some of the holdouts who doomed the prior efforts in the Senate said they wanted to move on to more bipartisan initiatives.
“I think we need to just take a break and get through tax reform and try to find some issues or initiatives that we can come together on,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told the Washington Examiner before Jones’ victory when asked about the prospects for repeal next year.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Wednesday that Jones is likely to be a more centrist Democrat and that there is a “real possibility of doing some bipartisan work."
“Infrastructure reform is one that comes to mind,” she said when asked by reporters to name an example.
Murkowski and Collins joined Sen John McCain, R-Ariz., and all Senate Democrats to defeat a “skinny” repeal bill in late July that repealed the law’s employer and individual mandate among other provisions. The dramatic, late-night vote dealt a major blow to repeal and replace efforts in the Senate.
The trio of senators had similar reservations about a repeal and replace bill in September offered by Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
That bill would take Obamacare funding for the Medicaid expansion and from insurance subsidies to lower premiums on the individual market and give them to states via block grants. It also included per-capita caps that limited overall Medicaid funding per beneficiary.
Cassidy said on Monday that he didn’t know if the GOP would go back to Graham-Cassidy in 2018.
“It may be that Graham-Cassidy never comes back up because something else takes priority,” he told the Washington Examiner. “Somebody told me today that the House is gonna do welfare reform in reconciliation. That is just a rumor.”
He added that it wouldn’t matter whether Jones or Moore won because Alabama would be helped greatly by Graham-Cassidy compared to the status quo. Under the bill, states that did not expand Medicaid would see more funding than what they get now, while expansion states would see less.
“Paradoxically it may help him, he’s the one guy that would say, ‘I’ve got to vote for it,’ and kind of call out others who voted no for no other reason than they were told to vote no,” Cassidy said after Jones’ election.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a co-sponsor of Graham-Cassidy, said he believes the bill could still be brought back next year.
Other senators were not willing to give up on the possibility of overhauling Obamacare.
“I hope we’ll start on it as soon as we get back,” Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said referring to the winter recess. “If we fail on it a third time, we’ll try a fourth time and a fifth time, if we need to, and a sixth time. And eventually we’ll get it done.”
Republicans would likely need to use reconciliation to try to repeal Obamacare again in 2018. Reconciliation allows a bill to be passed with only 51 votes instead of the 60 needed to break a filibuster in the Senate.
But reconciliation comes with several restrictions. For one, the bill must reduce the deficit by a certain amount and only focus on budgetary and spending levels.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., pointed out that even with a majority of seats, the Senate had been unable to pass a bill that would repeal portions of Obamacare.
“We had the healthcare bill we couldn’t get out even though we had 52 … the middle in the Senate has already had influence on which way we went. That’s not going to change,” he said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, echoed similar sentiments about Republican priorities.
“Whether you have 52 or 51 Republicans, we in the Republican majority have to make up our minds … are we going to be in the majority and deliver on the promises? That can be done with 51 votes or 52 votes,” Grassley said. “So it shouldn’t make any difference and that’s for only 5 percent of the stuff we do. The other 95 percent that has to be done by regular order to get 60 votes has to have bipartisanship anyway. So it doesn’t make much difference whether you have 51 or 52.”
Other Republicans shrugged off the loss of a seat in the Senate.
“I think they get a little harder but I don’t know that Roy Moore was going to be a reliable vote, either,” said Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J., on the odds for repealing Obamacare. “I don’t think that makes that much difference.”
Republicans do have a silver lining even if the ship to a full repeal of Obamacare has sailed for the near future. That silver lining is repeal of the individual mandate, which requires everyone to buy health insurance, in the tax reform legislation.
MacArthur said repealing the mandate could help in selling a repeal bill because it would mean fewer people would go without insurance. He pointed to an estimate from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that repealing the mandate would lead 13 million people to go without insurance.
“When they repeal the mandate, the CBO said 13 million people are going to drop insurance,” he said. “They can’t count them twice. When they evaluate any future action against current law they can’t count those 13 million again.”
House Republicans took heat from critics that their repeal bill passed in May would lead to more than 20 million people becoming uninsured. While the mandate would account for about half of that, the rest came from cuts to Medicaid and insurer subsidies to pay down insurance.