And given the landscape of the 2016 Senate election, scoring 60 Senate votes is unlikely. The party currently controls 54 seats, and it would take a massive string of upsets to assemble a filibuster-proof majority next session.
“The fact of the matter is you can’t repeal all of Obamacare in reconciliation,” said Doug Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum and a policy director for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
But even if it’s not a viable pathway to repeal, reconciliation is still far from feckless in the GOP fight against the Affordable Care Act. Instead, Republicans could use the process to strike down large chunks of the law—perhaps even enough to prune back the law to near irrelevancy.
“The process of using reconciliation to repeal parts of ACA is in many ways a trial run for a serious effort to repeal ACA under a Republican president,” said Ed Lorenzen, a senior adviser at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “The difficulty they are having in putting together repeal legislation that satisfies the Senate rules related to reconciliation may make it a less attractive strategy in 2017 [if] a Republican president is elected.”
A potential embarrassment
For this Congress, Republicans’ worst-case scenario would be a failure to find an anti-Obamacare reconciliation measure that they can even get 51 senators to line up behind.
So far, they’ve had some hiccups. Sens. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee have vowed to vote against anything short of full repeal. But including a Planned Parenthood defund in the bill threatens the votes of moderates such as Sens. Mark Kirk, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski.
For now, it remains unclear what will be the contents of a bill by the time the Senate votes on it, or when that will be, or even whether GOP leadership will be able to scrape together the mere 51 votes needed to send the bill to the president’s desk. But the process of fitting together Obamacare provisions like pieces of a puzzle to meet Senate procedural rules—and both moderate and conservative expectations—has demonstrated the difficulty of governing on the GOP’s election-winning philosophy of repeal-and-replace.
While the exercise is largely regarded as political messaging, the GOP’s back-and-forth with the Senate parliamentarian has real consequences for 2017, when Republicans have pledged that the Affordable Care Act will be repealed under a new president from their party. Intended to show what could happen with new leadership, this year’s reconciliation process has instead shown the unlikelihood of a full ACA repeal. But when it comes to how the health care law works, political messaging aside, it might not matter whether it’s fully or partially repealed.
“I think if we get to 2017 and we’ve got a Republican House, Senate, and president, what they’re going to care about is the outcome, not whether it’s the specifics of repeal-and-replace,” Holtz-Eakin said. “They don’t necessarily have to try to repeal the whole thing. They have to modify it and get to something they support as a party.”