How Democrats Gave the GOP One More Chance to Repeal Obamacare

Their debt-ceiling deal with President Trump cleared up a busy congressional calendar and may have removed a big hurdle for Republicans facing a September 30 deadline.

Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi
Jose Luis Magana / AP

“They may have spiked the ball in the end zone a little too early,” Mitch McConnell observed about his Democratic colleagues to The New York Times last week.

The Senate majority leader was referring to the celebrations from Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi about the deal they struck with President Trump, in which the president agreed to a short-term increase in the debt ceiling over the objections of McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan. McConnell boasted that because of the way he wrote the corresponding legislation, going forward Democrats won’t have the same leverage on the debt ceiling that they thought they would.

But the agreement that “Chuck and Nancy” reached with Trump may end up backfiring on Democrats in another way: It freed up time for Republicans to take one last stab at dismantling the Affordable Care Act.

The House and Senate entered September facing a series of deadlines at the end of the month, most significantly the expiration of government funding on the 30th and a possible debt default at around the same date. Congress being Congress, most in Washington expected the month’s final week to be consumed by the usual fiscal brinksmanship, with a last-minute deal passing the House and Senate in the closing days. But the Democrats struck their deal with Trump surprisingly early, and their willingness to attach the spending and debt measures to a package of Hurricane Harvey aid cleared the congressional calendar for the end of the month.

Republicans had faced a September 30 deadline of their own to pass a health-care bill through the Senate using the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process. At the time of the fiscal deal, this wasn’t much of a factor, because the party had seemingly given up on Obamacare repeal after the Senate failed to pass a bill in July. McConnell had moved on, as had many Republican senators; one committee even launched bipartisan hearings and negotiations with the goal of fixing the law rather than repealing it.

All the while, however, GOP Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana had been working quietly on a repeal proposal. For weeks its prospects appeared dim, in part because the Senate simply had too much else on its plate. The fiscal deal removed one major hurdle, and on Wednesday, a spokesman for McConnell said it is the majority leader’s “intention to consider Graham-Cassidy on the floor next week.”

Pelosi and Schumer have already begun facing questions about whether they unwittingly helped revive the repeal of Obamacare, and those are only likely to intensify if the Graham-Cassidy bill passes. On Wednesday, Pelosi rejected out of hand the notion that they might share some of the blame. “Nooo,” she replied when a reporter asked if she had any regrets about striking the deal and clearing the calendar for a repeal bill. “They’re not even related. In fact, it gives us the opening,” Pelosi said. “That’s why [the Republicans] were opposed to it. That’s why they were so long-faced coming out of the meeting.”

A Senate Democratic aide similarly dismissed the argument as “nonsensical.” Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the aide said that even if the Senate was negotiating a spending deal in the final days of the month, there would be nothing to stop McConnell—either procedurally or politically—from bringing up a repeal bill as well. “McConnell would move to have this vote the minute he had the votes no matter what else was on the table,” the aide said. “So of course we would make the deal we made at the beginning of the month because that sets up the maximum amount of leverage for the end of the year.”

The aide also argued that a crowded schedule would have made it easier for Republicans to pass a health-care bill, since the attention of the media and the public would be divided. “They need the cover of night to advance it,” the aide said.

Still, if the unexpected agreement did free up time for Republicans, it might also have provided some additional motivation for a party that was clearly miffed at having to cede ground to Democrats despite controlling the levers of government. GOP lawmakers have warned that their inability to enact their agenda could jeopardize their majority next year, and with Trump turning in frustration to “Chuck and Nancy,” first on spending and then again on immigration, they saw first-hand the consequences of their own disunity.

Whether that extra desperation will be enough for Republicans to accomplish what they could not for the first eight months of the year is unclear. The two GOP senators whose votes are likely to prove decisive, John McCain of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, were unmoved over the summer by appeals to party unity and have advocated more bipartisanship, not less. But if Republican leaders can finally find the votes to roll back Obamacare next week, they might offer some of their thanks to Democrats.