Congress approved on Thursday night an Obamacare repeal package that serves as a double-edged sword for Republicans: while a boon to conservative senators running for president, it could jeopardize some of their GOP colleagues running for reelection in swing states in 2016.
“The Republican caucus is united in its belief that Obamacare is flawed and needs to be fixed,” said moderate Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “By twinning it with a defunding of Planned Parenthood, you divide the caucus and muddy the message in my view.”
The reconciliation bill is under a veto threat from President Obama and is not likely to become law anytime soon. But the decision by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to allow a vote on such charged issues as Obamacare and Planned Parenthood is likely to come back to bite moderate Republicans in states that tend to vote Democratic in presidential years. They include 2016 candidates like Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
Kirk and Collins were the only Republicans to vote against the final legislation.
In the days leading up to the vote, Toomey said he would support the full Obamacare repeal package. He cited a series of edited videos released earlier this year that appeared to show Planned Parenthood employees selling fetal body parts for profit.
“Recently, we have seen horrific videos further demonstrating that Planned Parenthood has an appalling disregard for human life,” Toomey said. “While I support women’s health, there is no reason why taxpayers should be providing hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies each year to this organization.”
Even before the vote occurred, Democratic operatives seized on it as evidence that the GOP-led Congress is too extreme.
“The Republican-led Senate is spending the last few hours of its unimpressive working year to attack the health care services American women and families in every single state rely on,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee national press secretary Lauren Passalacqua. “Next fall, voters will remember how their Senators ignored the problems that actually demand Congressional action to wage a dangerous ideological crusade.”
And New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) — who is challenging Ayotte in what is one of the banner races this cycle — bashed Ayotte for her pre-vote position.
“I’m extremely disappointed that Kelly Ayotte has consistently put corporate special interests and her party’s leadership ahead of New Hampshire, and that she has vowed to vote yet again to repeal New Hampshire’s bipartisan Medicaid expansion plan and defund Planned Parenthood,” Hassan said in a statement blasted out on Thursday morning.
But McConnell and other Republican leaders are as happy to put Democrats on the record voting for Obamacare as they are to let their members vote to repeal it.
“It’s a political exercise on the part of some people who just want to put people on record,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.).
“I think we all recognize the president isn’t likely to sign this bill so it’s not going to become a law,” Cornyn said on Thursday.
Republican aides argued that moderates could vote against the bill or in favor of amendments offered by Democrats if they wanted to burnish their bipartisan credentials.
Earlier in the day, the reconciliation bill faced another political test when Senate Democrats sought to include gun control measures in the wake of the deadly mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. An amendment to expand background checks for those trying to purchase guns at shows or on the Internet failed, 50 to 48, while one to bar those on the terrorist watchlist from buying guns was defeated, 54 to 45.
Four Republicans — Kirk, Collins, Toomey and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) — voted for expanded background checks. All four are up for reelection in 2016. Johnson, another 2016 moderate, did not cast a vote. The only Democrat to vote against the amendment was Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.).
The gun control amendment needed 60 votes to pass. But the Planned Parenthood language was part of the overall package, which only required 51 votes to succeed.
The overall bill was a carefully crafted product of negotiations after two of the Republican senators also running for president — Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) along with Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), threatened to oppose the bill because it does not fully repeal Obamacare.
To mollify those conservatives, McConnell eventually added an amendment package that included measures to phase out Medicaid expansion, delay subsidies for those who purchase insurance on the health care exchanges for two years and shift some funding toward Medicare.
The Planned Parenthood provision also became an integral part of keeping on board some wary conservatives. Leaders originally promised to add the Planned Parenthood provision to the reconciliation bill to appease conservatives who wanted to defund the group in a must-pass spending bill earlier this year. This way, McConnell gave Republicans a chance to make good on promises to cut funding for the group.
“It’s all tied up with getting enough votes to deliver on what Republicans have promised to deliver on for about four years,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa.) “It’s putting a bill on the president’s desk repealing Obamacare or changing Obamacare and this is the only way it can be done.”
Even if moderate Republican senators oppose the package because of the controversial language, they could still easily be tarred on the 2016 campaign trail for being part of the Republican Congress that passed it.
Members did have a chance to try to strip the Planned Parenthood defunding element from the bill. Collins introduced a failed amendment that would have restored federal money for the embattled women’s health group.
Republicans downplayed the political risks of passing the measure. National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Roger Wicker (Miss.) said the general public is “very down” on Obamacare and the repeal bill speaks to those voters.
“This bill not only keeps a promise but it happens to be in line with what the public is expecting of us,” Wicker said. “We’ve run cycle after after cycle on repealing Obamacare.”