Congress Heads for a Showdown on Obamacare

The clock, as they say, is ticking. Fast.

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

Health care warriors, saddle up! This promises to be a wild weekend on Capitol Hill—and for anyone with skin in the repeal-and-replace-Obamacare game.

After days and weeks of breathless anticipation, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is set to release a “discussion draft” of his chamber’s version of the wildly controversial (read: unpopular) AHCA. To clarify: What McConnell’s dropping is not an actual bill, with the devilish details of a plan laid out in expansive, if largely impenetrable legislatese. A discussion draft can be as specific or as vague as the leader sees fit, and vanishingly few outside of McConnell’s office know for certain what to expect: A document resembling actual legislation? A reasonably meaty outline? A smattering of bullet points beefed up with meaningless slogans and cheery photos of senior citizens frolicking in fields of prescription drugs?

No matter. When the draft hits, it will set in motion a Capitol Hill and K Street freakout, as aides, lobbyists, and other outside interest groups rush to read, analyze, and respond to whatever the heck McConnell has handed them—mindful that the Majority Leader has vowed to hold a vote on the bill before Congress skips town for the July 4th recess late next week.

The clock, as they say, is ticking. Fast.

Opponents of the AHCA, of course, have already been hard at work plotting their pushback. Based on news reports, leaks, and wild rumors about what is likely to be in the Senate version, groups like the Center for American Progress and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities have been crunching numbers and making predictions as to the plan’s impact. (Their verdict: Bad. Very bad.) Those analyses and forecasts, in turn, have been used by Democratic leadership in preliminary messaging memos.

(Two days before the draft dropped, in fact, Pelosi’s office put out a memo—subject: “Damaging Provisions Reportedly In the Evolving Secret Senate Trumpcare Bill”—featuring snippets of CAP and CBPP reports on how Trumpcare would “eviscerate coverage and protections” for those with preexisting conditions, further cut Medicaid, and shortchange efforts to combat the opioid crisis.)

Of course, these early talking points rest heavily on speculation about what will be in the still evolving bill—which, as you may have heard, is being pulled together primarily by McConnell’s office under a cloak of secrecy worthy of the Illuminati. Which means that when an actual draft hits the streets tomorrow, the real race begins.

As fired up as they are, Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer’s office doesn’t have the manpower to handle this response job alone—though rest assured they will be tearing into it. (As will Pelosi’s people.) There will be a flurry of conference calls, and pieces of the bill will be farmed out to the relevant committees for “scrubbing.” Minority staffers on the Finance Committee will look at tax issues, Budget staffers will examine CBO-related stuff, HELP (Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions) will focus on actual health policy, and so on.

Don’t get too excited: It’s not like staffers will be pulling a group all-nighter in Schumer’s chambers, pounding Starbucks and scarfing down bad Chinese takeout. (“It’s just staffers at their desks. Not the West Wing,” quipped a Democratic aide.) Even so, staffers say the accelerated schedule McConnell is pushing is a real problem, considering how little advance info they have. “No text, no hearings, no CBO score,” exclaimed the Democratic aide. “ ‘Problem’ is an understatement.”

“It’s batten down the hatches time,” declared another staffer.

Similarly, the folks at groups like CAP are braced for a full-out sprint. “Our team will be working fast to analyze the discussion draft and will have a few analyses out in the hours after the draft is public,” said spokesman Devon Kearns.

At that point, the messaging machine then kicks into overdrive. Outside analyses, along with the various committee dissections, will be funneled to Schumer’s office, where aides will pull together a more involved, helpfully bullet-pointed rapid-response memo to be blasted back out to conference members, reporters, sympathetic groups, and the legions of surrogates that populate the cable chat shows.

Individual lawmakers, meanwhile, will have their staffers obsessively checking their email inboxes for guidance from leadership on the best lines of attack. And, of course, specific lawmakers have pet issues for which their staffs will be on high alert. (Senators Murkowski and Collins, for instance, are likely extremely keen to see if the reports are true that the House’s language defunding Planned Parenthood is being stripped from the Senate version.)

Lobbyists and activists will be in hurry-scurry mode as well, rallying the troops around certain points and pestering Hill leaders to put the spotlight on their pet issues (like, say, opioid addiction).

Now, all this is assuming there is enough substance to McConnell’s discussion draft to give opponents something to fire at. If it turns out to be little more than an outline or bullet points—as Hill folks on both sides of the aisle consider a live possibility in light of the leader’s keep-in-under-wraps approach thus far—then there will be vastly less scrubbing and vastly more shrieking. Still, a busy weekend for all involved.

Then some time next week, Republican leadership will drop another, more fleshed-out version of the plan. And the insanity will begin anew.