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Sanders and Klobuchar book CNN debate with Cassidy and Graham

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) speaks as Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) listen. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The chief sponsors of the GOP’s 11th-hour effort to curtail the Affordable Care Act will debate two of their Senate opponents, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), on Monday night — an arrangement that surprised some of Sanders’s Democratic colleagues, who learned about the debate when host network CNN blasted out a news release.

According to Sanders spokesman Josh Miller-Lewis, CNN came to the senator with the idea earlier in the week, and Sanders signed on without hesitation.

“For us, it was a no brainer,” said Josh Miller-Lewis. “If it’s a debate between guaranteeing health care to every single person as a right, or taking it away from 30 million Americans, Democrats will always win. How could you not take that opportunity?”

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But the news also prompted fresh panic from Senate aides — most of them anonymous — asking whether Sanders had walked into a trap. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who launched his bill with Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) the same day that Sanders launched his universal Medicare for All bill, has frequently (and sarcastically) thanked the Vermont senator for giving him a contrast — repeal of the ACA, or inevitable health care “socialism.” (Klobuchar has not endorsed the Sanders bill.)

Sanders, who has not directly addressed Graham’s taunts, has otherwise rejected the premise. Starting in January, shortly after becoming the Senate Democrats’ political outreach chair, Sanders helped organize health-care rallies meant to preempt any repeal of the ACA. Throughout 2017, Sanders used campaign funds (he is running for reelection in 2018) to give speaking tours in the states of senators who were seen as on the fence about repeal. He delayed the release of his universal health-care bill until Sept. 13 to avoid distracting from the fight against repeal.

A few days later, Republicans began organizing one last campaign for repeal; that prompted Sanders’s critics to accuse him of jumping the gun and distracting from the core debate over the ACA. The news of next week’s CNN debate jogged their memories of a similar CNN event in February, where Sanders and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) sparred over health care. At the time, Sanders pivoted from Cruz’s attacks on the ACA to his own arguments for universal care, including praise of single-payer systems in Europe.

“That was a very different moment in this debate,” Miller-Lewis said. “Bernie’s been saying for months that he knows single-payer isn’t going to pass next week. This is about making the argument to save the ACA.”