THE MORNING PLUM:
It is common enough for lawmakers to set policy goals and devise talking points that are designed to build a case for them. But in the battle over President Trump’s ongoing sabotage of Obamacare, we’re seeing the reverse: Trump and Republicans are proceeding from an original set of lies the party has told for years and are working backward from those to their policy positions.
Politico reports that congressional Republicans are privately admitting they will likely have to adopt some form of the bipartisan deal reached this week to shore up the Obamacare exchanges. Trump and Republicans have publicly blasted the compromise forged by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), which would fund cost-sharing reductions for two years in exchange for some deregulatory features that Republicans want. But that posture may not be sustainable, Republicans acknowledge:
Republican sources say it’s only a matter of time before Congress must find some way of addressing the reeling insurance markets — a vote the GOP sources know will infuriate lawmakers and their base. …
The most likely scenario is to push the matter off and fold a yet-to-be-determined solution into a year-end package they hope will include some GOP concessions as well as Democratic perks. Such a strategy, they argue, would be less painful than voting on a stand-alone bill that conservatives view as a “bailout” for insurance companies — and a vote to “prop up” a law they’ve tried to dismantle for years.
This constitutes an important, if implicit, admission that funding the CSRs is the right thing to do, because not funding them could help cause insurers to exit the individual markets, leaving millions without coverage options, including in many red states. Yet Trump and Republicans continue to oppose this, arguing that Murray-Alexander would “bail out” insurance companies and take the focus off the GOP drive to repeal Obamacare. As White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders put it: “We’ve said all along that we want something that doesn’t just bail out the insurance companies, but actually provides relief for all Americans, and this bill doesn’t address that fact.”
But this argument embodies two false narratives that symbiotically feed off one another. It’s a lie that funding the CSRs would “bail out” the insurers. These payments reimburse insurers for subsidizing out-of-pocket costs for lower-income customers, which the Affordable Care Act requires of them. It’s also a lie that the Trump/GOP repeal-and-replace plans that Sanders referenced would provide more relief than the allegedly failing ACA does; they would leave millions more uninsured. The lie about CSRs constituting insurance-company “bailouts” sugarcoats the actual reason Republicans oppose them, which is that they don’t want to spend as much as the ACA does to cover poor people. This position also necessitates the second lie — that the GOP replacements would help more people, despite the fact that their massive spending cuts would leave millions stranded.
And yet, precisely because Republicans are locked into both of those lies — having told versions of both for so long — they cannot embrace the Murray-Alexander compromise. Appropriating the CSRs would constitute an admission that they aren’t actually “bailing out” the insurers; they are spending money so poor people can have coverage options. This is a goal Republicans say they support, and doing that would concede that the ACA actually accomplishes that goal.
Even more to the point, embracing the deal would blow up the Trump/GOP lie that the ACA has already imploded — it’s “dead” and “gone,” says Trump — and would show that bipartisan action can make the law work. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s office accidentally concedes this point by opposing the deal on the grounds that the GOP “should keep its focus on repeal and replace of Obamacare.” There is no reason Republicans can’t keep pursuing repeal while also making the markets work now — unless they worry that showcasing a workable bipartisan alternative to the single-minded GOP goal of repeal would make that goal politically harder.
It is often asked why Republicans should prop up the ACA exchanges when the law’s problems are not their fault, and when they oppose it and have their own alternative health-care vision. But this is a position even Republicans should reject, because their own efforts to replace the law have failed. If they can’t implement their own replacement vision, why should they not act to help prevent problems in the current law from doing widespread harm? It is historically typical for major social legislation to undergo fixing or revision. Indeed, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) made uncharacteristically good sense when he said that until Republicans can come up with their own long-term replacement (which they probably won’t, but still), “stabilizing the marketplace and keeping premiums affordable is not a bad idea.”
On top of all this, Murray-Alexander actually goes some way toward giving Trump and Republicans the deregulation they want. But the problem is that for them, compromising in service of constructive governance that does not do sufficient damage to Barack Obama’s legacy is often too menacing a Rubicon to cross, even in service of limited GOP goals. After all, it would functionally abandon the lies around which the party has organized itself for years — that the ACA has irredeemably failed, and that their alternative would cover more people for less money. The unwillingness to let go of the lies is shaping the current GOP policy response. The question is whether this is politically sustainable heading into a midterm election. Fortunately, it probably isn’t.
* TRUMP EXAGGERATES ABOUT INSURER PROFITS: Another way Trump justifies opposition to Murray-Alexander is by saying he won’t support anything that helps insurers who have “made a fortune” off the ACA. Reed Abelson and Margot Sanger-Katz set the record straight:
The insurers generally lost money in the first three years of the Obamacare market, said Deep Banerjee, an analyst for Standard & Poor’s, though it appears they were faring better this year, before the cancellation of government payments. “It is not a market that has been profitable for them,” he said.
Trump is selling his opposition to the deal as taking on the insurers, but if Congress doesn’t extend cost-sharing reductions, the destabilization could harm millions of ordinary Americans. Also see Glenn Kessler’s excellent take-down.
* GOP SENATOR AGREES WITH CORKER ON TRUMP: Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) tells Politico he agrees with Sen. Bob Corker’s scalding criticism of the president as erratic on foreign policy front. Which makes Flake more vulnerable to his primary challenger:
If anything, Flake is determined to make his campaign against Trump-aligned candidate Kelli Ward a referendum on the future of the Republican Party. … “Since Donald Trump has been in the White House, Jeff Flake has been one of his biggest antagonists,” Ward said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “Those attacks are unfortunate. And that’s why he’s so weak.”
If Flake’s apostasy leads him to lose to Ward, Democrats have a better shot at grabbing this seat. Great work, Stephen K. Bannon!
* OBAMA STUMPS IN VIRGINIA: Barack Obama will campaign in Richmond today for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam. The First Read crew points out that this is all about driving up turnout, and here’s the good and bad news:
Democrats in Virginia don’t turn out as well in non-presidential years. Going back to 2006, exit polls show that Democrats have enjoyed, on average, a nearly 7-point advantage in party ID in presidential years, while party ID has been close to even in non-presidential elections … The good news for Democrats is that turnout in the June primaries certainly suggested that Democrats were more motivated than Republicans – more than 540,000 voters participated in the Dem primary, versus 365,000 in the GOP race.
One big question is whether that primary turnout shows that Trump is energizing Democrats enough to allow them to overcome their midterm drop-off problem in the general.
* REPUBLICANS HAVE NO CREDIBLE REASON TO OPPOSE DEAL: The Post has a strong editorial explaining that there is simply no credible rationale for Republicans to oppose Alexander-Murray:
If they favor small government, they ought to like this deal. The Congressional Budget Office calculated that restricting the insurer payments would actually cost taxpayers $194 billion over a decade. Killing the deal, meanwhile, means the Republicans would get no major regulatory reforms … Killing this deal would provide more evidence the GOP has become … the stupid party, simplistic in its policy views, cowardly in its fear of the base, toddler-like in the tantrums it throws when it does not get its way.
This is another way opposing Murray-Alexander is folly — it denies Republicans the steps towards deregulation that they want.
* REPUBLICANS WORRY ABOUT MISSISSIPPI: The Washington Examiner reports that Republicans are worried that the poor health of Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) could create more Bannon-fueled problems for them, should he resign:
Insurgents … are now eyeing the special election that would be called if Cochran stepped down. It’s a concern for a Republican establishment faced with diverting resources from the general election to quash a rebellion initiated by Steve Bannon … An extra Senate race in Mississippi, a solid red state, provides the anti-establishment wing of the GOP another opportunity to challenge for a Republican Senate seat and oust [Mitch] McConnell from leadership.
We have only begun to glimpse the damage that Bannon may end up doing.
* REPUBLICANS ENABLE TRUMP, ALL FOR A TAX CUT: E.J. Dionne Jr.’s column links Trump’s alleged insensitivity to a war widow to his refusal to support stabilizing the ACA marketplaces, which both flow from destructiveness that Republicans continue to enable:
All Republican politicians who take their obligations seriously must stop rationalizing the irrational and say what has long been obvious, that Trump’s way of doing business is unproductive, erratic, mean and scary. Until this happens, Republicans deserve to be seen as enablers of a dangerous presidency. … you can count on GOP leaders to maintain their complicity until the tax cut that is their lodestar is enacted into law.
Indeed you can, and what is worse, they actually think it’s worth it.
* AND TRUMP ALLEGES MASSIVE CONSPIRACY: Good morning, Mr. President, we have the Russia probe on the brain, do we?
Bloomberg reported that two members of a firm that helped produce the dossier alleging Trump-Russia links and written by a former British spy have declined to answer questions from Congress. Allow us to remind you that the FBI and the intelligence community have taken this “Fake Dossier” very seriously indeed.