Maybe. But McConnell does seem to have been mighty picky about who got an official seat at that table. And, Mitch being Mitch, you know he didn’t just throw this bunch together at random.
Indeed, as multiple GOP staffers helpfully point out, the working group is stacked with conservatives and with members of leadership. It is decidedly light on moderating voice likely to stir up trouble. (Most notably: Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, both of whom oppose the AHCA’s defunding of Planned Parenthood.)
Members who made the cut are, alphabetically, and with noteworthy qualifications:
Lamar Alexander (Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee)
John Barrasso (leadership)
John Cornyn (leadership)
Tom Cotton (staunch conservative)
Ted Cruz (staunch conservative)
Mike Enzi (Budget Committee chairman)
Cory Gardner (a relative moderate from purplish Colorado)
Orrin Hatch (Chairman of the Finance Committee)
Mike Lee (staunch conservative)
Rob Portman (relative moderate, especially when it comes to Medicaid funding)
John Thune (leadership)
Pat Toomey (close to McConnell; hails from the swingy state of Pennsylvania; fiscally conservative member of the Finance Committee who has spent much time pondering how to cut Medicaid costs)
In a display of conference inclusiveness, other senators have been invited to drop in on the semiweekly sessions (including Joni Ernst and Shelley Moore Capito). Ron Johnson went so far as to announce that he plans to sit in on all the meetings, effectively serving as a 14th member. The group’s defenders praise it as a tidy “cross section” or “microcosm” of the overall conference.
Even aides whose bosses are in the inner circle, however, acknowledge that its central aim isn’t so much to achieve ideological balance as to minimize drama—both during preliminary negotiations and once the resulting plan hits the floor. McConnell has no intention of letting his chamber descend into House-like chaos. (In addition to being undignified, it could force his members to take risky political stands.) As such, one of his key challenges is to manage hard-liners.
“McConnell learned from Paul Ryan’s mistake. You can’t just cook up something behind close doors and then expect conservatives to salute and vote for it,” said an aide to a conservative Senator. “This committee is all about getting buy-in from conservative senators early on so they have a harder time saying ‘no’ to the final product.”
Indeed, the roots of the group lie in informal discussions that bomb-lobber Ted Cruz was holding with colleagues a few weeks back. Cruz soon discovered that HELP Chairman Alexander was having his own similar conversations. The two jointly approached McConnell about formalizing a coterie of members to serve as a sounding board/negotiating hub.
McConnell gave the 13 meeting space, a dash of structure, and some specific assignments. (For instance, he has charged Portman and Toomey with figuring out The Medicaid Problem—namely, what to do about the 31 states, including several red ones, that expanded their Medicaid rolls using Obamacare funds.) The group meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with each gathering tackling a particular topic (Medicaid, Title 1, the tax credit, etc.). Deliberations are to be kept hush-hush, although Cruz is reportedly giving regular updates to the House Freedom Caucus, which was so central to shaping the final House bill.