This week, as Senate Republicans scrambled one more time to unravel the Affordable Care Act on a party-line vote, some Democrats asked whether it all could have been prevented with a little more strategy.
What if “Chuck and Nancy,” as President Trump had come to call the Democrats’ congressional leaders, had not cut a Sept. 7 deal on the debt limit that cleared the calendar? What if progressives, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), had delayed the Sept. 13 release of a Universal Medicare for All bill until after the Sept. 30 deadline on repeal?
Democrats “spiked the ball in the end zone a little too early,” Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this month.
“I’m not sure single payer vs Graham-Cassidy is the debate we want right now,” tweeted Tommy Vietor, an Obama administration veteran and a co-host of “Pod Save America,” after Sanders agreed to a CNN-hosted debate on health care with the repeal bill’s sponsors.
Backbiting and nervousness among Democrats is a norm in Washington, and all of it would disappear if the repeal push fails. But some of the panic had trickled down to the grass roots. The rules of budget reconciliation, which gives the majority party one shot each fiscal year to pass a bill with just 51 votes, had quickly risen from obscurity to infamy. Democrats who once cheered when an unelectable-seeming Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination had become experts in focusing on the cloud over the silver lining.
On Friday afternoon, some of the 750 voters who attended Republican Sen. Joni Ernst’s town hall in Iowa City — the most liberal part of Iowa — worried that Democrats had opened a window wide enough for the Affordable Care Act’s opponents to squeeze through.
“That should have waited,” said Mary-Fran Niemeyer, 76, of the Democrats. “They should have gotten this bill put down and decided what to do from there.”
Steve Patterson, 70, worried that “Democrats have a way of shooting themselves in the foot,” and asked why they had not tried to run out the clock.
“The House voted it down, and we thought it was going to be okay, and then they came back and passed it,” Patterson said. “This thing’s got to be dead, staked in the heart. I’m worried about this Sanders debate, too. Just let the thing die first.”
Democrats, who are focusing most of their energy this week on stopping the Cassidy-Graham repeal push, refuse to rethink their early September strategy. The whiplash — from a week of praise for outsmarting Republicans, to a week of panic over the same — struck them as simply misguided.
“They’re not even related, no,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday, asked if the Sept. 7 debt limit deal had empowered Republicans. “In fact, it gives us the opening. That’s why they were opposed to it. That’s why they were so long-faced coming out of the meeting.”
Democrats and some analysts argue that the “Chuck and Nancy” deal actually made the last-ditch repeal push even tougher. On Sept. 1, Democrats confirmed with the Senate parliamentarian that reconciliation authority would run out in 30 days. By that time, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) had already put in more than a month of work on their repeal bill.
Stan Collender, a veteran of the House and Senate budget committees who now advises businesses on fiscal policy, said Democrats had probably decreased the GOP’s leverage for doing that by passing a short-term debt limit bill.
“There certainly would have been less time for floor debate in the Senate under normal scheduling, but the schedule could have been changed to add weekends, Yom Kippur and nights if they needed it,” Collender said. “Had the deal not been made, the multiple bills could also have provided additional opportunities for vote buying that don’t now exist.”
The clear schedule, Democrats say, also prevented one of their nightmare scenarios — a three-ring circus around the debt and disaster relief negotiations that distracted from a last-minute effort to repeal the ACA. If the bill was going to come anyway, argued one Democratic aide, it was better that it would dominate the news cycle, occupy late-night TV hosts and resurface on front pages of local newspapers. If it had come under the threat of a government shutdown, none of that was guaranteed.
“Does anyone really doubt that the GOP and Trump would have shut down the government for a few days if that provided the additional unimpeded time they needed for health care?” Collender asked. “Trump voters would have loved that.”
Democrats, hardened by experience, were not willing to bury Cassidy-Graham until the deadline passed or Republicans officially took it off the table. Neither scenario, they said, would be altered by Monday’s CNN debate between the Republican senators, Sanders and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) — the announcement of which came as a surprise to most Democrats.
The announcement by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that he would oppose the bill also soothed some of the intra-Democratic tensions. Days after Graham told reporters that his party was “inside the 5-yard line,” his co-sponsor was talking about reshaping the bill and introducing a new version that could not be scored by the CBO before a vote — a virtual replay of the strategy that had failed in the summer.
There was another, ironic reason Democrats were holding off on recriminations until Sept. 30. That was one deadline — but it might not mean the end of repeal. On Sunday, Graham said he and the bill’s co-sponsors were “not going to vote for a budget resolution that doesn’t allow the health-care debate to continue.” In other words, if stymied this week, Graham would favor a budget reconciliation bill for 2018 that allowed another repeal push.
Plenty could change between this week and September 2018, much of it potentially good for repeal’s advocates. A more deliberative process could win over McCain. The senator, who is fighting brain cancer, could be replaced by Gov. Doug Ducey (R-Ariz.), who favors Cassidy-Graham, and that would probably factor that into his decision. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who is on trial over corruption charges, could be shamed out of the Senate before Jan. 17, 2018, which would allow Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) to replace him with a Republican. (A poll this month found more than two-thirds of New Jersey voters opposed to that scenario.)
Only one factor could change in Democrats’ favor. On Sept. 26, Alabama’s Republican voters will decide whether to nominate Sen. Luther Strange for a full term, or nominate “Ten Commandments” judge Roy Moore. A Moore nomination would set up a potentially competitive Dec. 12 election against Democrat Doug Jones.
But even the arrival of a Sen. Moore would replace a loyal soldier for the leadership’s agenda with an unpredictable arch-conservative — one who said this week, through a spokesman, that he would oppose Cassidy-Graham.
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.