The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans are employing a new ruse to destroy Obamacare. Don’t fall for it.

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)
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Republican senators are now making a great show of expressing their disapproval with the scandalously opaque and secretive process that the GOP Senate leadership is employing in the quest to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The complaints have grown so loud that the New York Times has devoted a prominent article to them.

But it’s very likely that all of this will end up amounting to just another ruse — and that, in retrospect, we will see this as yet another layer of fraudulence among many that have encrusted this whole process throughout.

To be sure, the GOP senators expressing dissatisfaction with the process may well be sincere, at least to some extent. “The process is better if you do it in public, and that people get buy-in along the way and understand what’s going on,” groused Bob Corker of Tennessee. “Seems like around here, the last step is getting information, which doesn’t seem to be necessarily the most effective process,” griped Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. “None,” barked John McCain of Arizona, when asked to describe his comfort level with the process. Numerous other GOP senators have complained they don’t know what’s in the bill they’re going to be voting on within days or weeks.

But here’s the rub: If these senators really wanted to improve this process, they could be doing more to make that happen than they actually appear to be, and it’s within the realm of the plausible that they would succeed, at least to some degree.

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The most forceful and obvious way they could do this is to go to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and insist on it. If a handful of GOP senators said they can’t vote for the bill under these conditions, McConnell might have to relent, because he can afford to lose only a few.

In fairness, that is a lot to expect from a GOP senator. But there is something else any individual GOP senator — or a small group of them — could do to try to improve the process: They could go to McConnell and privately say that a slower and more transparent process is actually very important to them.

In this scenario, individual senators would do something that lies somewhere between (on the one hand) merely griping to reporters, which is mainly targeted toward getting good quotes into the media coverage and making elites happy, and (on the other hand) threatening a No vote, which would be pretty dramatic. Instead, the middle ground would be that a given GOP senator would tell McConnell directly that this is something he or she either needs (for political reasons) or really wants (for substantive reasons).

“A private conversation with McConnell in which a senator says, ‘This is really troubling to me and I hope you can find your way clear to do it some other way,’ would be more effective than public complaints,” congressional expert Norman Ornstein told me this morning. “McConnell’s top priority is maintaining his majority, so he’s going to be very sensitive to these senators’ own sense of what’s damaging to them. Leaders have to listen to individual senators.”

That is, leaders have to listen … if individual senators really mean what they say. The Senate is a murky place, where things mysteriously tend to end up happening if individual senators actually want them to, and don’t end up happening if they don’t. The crux of the matter is that, if any GOP senators actually did think of the process as a problem, they could convey that to McConnell, and he would feel a measure of actual pressure to respond to their concerns.

“The job of congressional leaders is to meet the demands of the rank and file,” another expert on Congress, Sarah Binder of George Washington University, told me. “That’s the leverage the rank and file has.”

Both Ornstein and Binder cautioned that such a move very well might not work on McConnell. That’s because he is under tremendous pressure to get some sort of repeal-and-replace bill passed, and that need might end up outweighing any need or demand from individual senators for a slower, more open process. But this only underscores another truth about this whole saga: Ultimately, what it would mean is that McConnell knows he cannot actually get the bill through the Senate unless it is rushed through with little time for public debate on it.

In other words, if these senators told McConnell that they genuinely want or need an improved process, that would put him in a meaningful bind. He’d have to prioritize the need to get the bill through over his members’ genuine needs or demands, precisely because the bill can’t survive too much public scrutiny, as it’s so toxic. As Ornstein put it, the fact that the process is likely to remain as it is underscores that “McConnell’s one goal is to get 50 votes — and the only way he will get that 50 votes is to keep this process as tightly secret as possible.”

It’s possible these senators are meaningfully prodding McConnell behind the scenes, of course. But there is no real indication that this is happening. And this will have actual consequences. In a remarkable bit of journalism, Vox interviewed a number of GOP senators and asked them to make a comprehensive, affirmative case for why the GOP bill will lead to good outcomes for the health-care system and the country. They wouldn’t, or couldn’t, provide meaningful answers. Whether this is the result of bad underlying ideas, or the level of secrecy depriving them of information on it, or some combination of the two, is up for debate. But obviously, the process isn’t helping lead to good legislating or a good outcome and will likely make the outcome worse.

Meanwhile, until we learn otherwise, we should assume that the only thing individual senators are accomplishing with their complaints is getting good quotes for themselves in the media without creating any meaningful discomfort for GOP leaders that might induce them to change any of this. Indeed, those good quotes may make it easier for rank-and-file senators to vote for the bill in the end — they may argue they are voting for it only reluctantly, after doing all they could to give the public more transparency and input, as their own objections throughout (they will claim) prove they did.

* ANOTHER POLL PUTS TRUMP’S APPROVAL IN THE TOILET: A new Associated Press finds that 35 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s performance, while 64 percent disapprove. And:

Two-thirds of Americans, or 65 percent, think Trump doesn’t have much respect for the country’s democratic institutions and traditions or has none at all. Just a third of Americans, or 34 percent, thinks he has a great deal or even a fair amount of respect for them.

Among even Republicans and GOP-leaners, nearly a third say Trump doesn’t respect our institutions, and a quarter disapprove of his performance. Yet we keep hearing he’ll never lose his base …

* REPUBLICANS IN PANIC ABOUT GEORGIA ELECTION: Alex Isenstadt reports that GOP strategists see a real possibility of a loss in next week’s special House election:

Interviews with nearly two dozen Republican operatives and officials reveal that they are preparing for the possibility of an unnerving defeat that could spur lawmakers to distance themselves from Trump  …. several private surveys taken over the last few weeks show Republican nominee Karen Handel trending downward, with one private party poll showing 30-year-old Democrat Jon Ossoff opening up a more than five-point lead in the Republican-oriented, suburban Atlanta seat.

Again, Republican Tom Price won this seat in 2016 by 23 points. But if Democrats do somehow win, it could weaken the GOP protective wall around Trump and spur more House GOP retirements.

* HEALTH CARE IS A KEY ISSUE IN GEORGIA: NBC’s First Read crew makes a good point: The Ossoff-Handel outcome turns in part on the politics of health care:

According to the recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll of this race, more than 80% of likely voters said health care is an “extremely important” or “very important” issue regarding their vote, and just 1-in-4 voters said they approved of the House health-care plan. And remember, this is the race to fill the seat vacated by Republican Tom Price, who is now Trump’s HHS secretary.

One in four! I would strongly urge you not to over-read the meaning of this outcome either way. But if Democrats somehow win, Republicans might be a lot less inclined to go forward with their awful bill.

* TRUMP OFFICIALS ORDERED TO PRESERVE DOCUMENTS: The New York Times reports that a memo from the Trump transition team’s general counsel calls on transition members to preserve materials related to the Russia probes:

The memo … is the latest indication that the investigation’s special counsel, the former F.B.I. director Robert S. Mueller III, is casting a wide net in his inquiry into possible collusion between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Moscow … The document request illustrated the seriousness of the inquiry being conducted by Mr. Mueller and investigators in Congress, and how deeply they are delving into Mr. Trump’s activities and those of his associates.

Maybe if Trump keeps tweeting the words “witch hunt” and “fake news” with lots of capital letters and exclamation points, he can make all of this disappear.

* DREAMERS ARE SAFE: Politico reports that the Trump administration has quietly decided to leave in place protections from deportation for people brought here illegally as children. They will keep their work permits, too, under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program:

Since Trump took office, renewal of expiring DACA permits appears to have continued as normal. More than 17,000 new approvals took place between January and March and more than 107,000 existing DACA recipients had their work permits renewed for an additional two years.

One wonders whether Trump voters will feel let down by this clear departure from his vow to cancel President Barack Obama’s executive actions immediately. Doesn’t Trump want to Make America Great Again?

* BUT TRUMP ENDS ANOTHER PROTECTION FROM DEPORTATION: Despite the above news, the Trump administration has also formally ended Obama’s effort to expand DACA to protect parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, otherwise known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans.

The courts had already blocked the DAPA program, but this move makes it official administration policy. So Trump supporters have a consolation prize: While many young immigrants will be protected from deportation, many older longtime residents with jobs and ties to communities will not be.

* AND DOES TRUMP STILL FEEL ‘VINDICATED’? Remember the GOP talking point that Comey “vindicated” Trump by testifying that he’d told Trump he wasn’t under investigation? The White House is still clinging to this idea, sort of:

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the principal deputy White House press secretary … was asked whether Trump still felt “vindicated” by the extraordinary congressional testimony last week by James B. Comey, the FBI director whose firing by Trump has contributed to questions about whether the president obstructed justice.
“I believe so,” Sanders said, before referring reporters to Marc E. Kasowitz, Trump’s private attorney.

Once again, Trump’s firing of Comey, which was detailed in that “vindicating” testimony, is what led directly to the appointment of a special counsel, and to the news that Trump is now being investigated for obstruction.