Obamacare Repeal Will Never Die

See you in 2019.

GOP Healthcare Repeal

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks with reporters following the party luncheons on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Sept. 19.

Aaron Bernstein/Reuters

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham had an interesting way of saying that the effort to pass his Obamacare repeal bill had failed. “We’re on the path to pass Graham-Cassidy-Heller-Johnson,” the senator told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “It’s not ‘if,’ it’s only a matter of ‘when.’ ”

The when will certainly not be this week, the final week of the fiscal year, after which Senate Republicans lose their existing authority to pass any Obamacare repeal with 50 votes.

Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, the legislative technician to Graham’s hype man, was crisper a few minutes later. “Through events that are under our control and not under our control, we don’t have the votes,” he said. “But we’ll keep working at it.”

Obamacare repeal isn’t so much dead as it is cryogenically frozen. It will return if, or when, the necessary factors align: a fresh budget resolution next year; a strong 2018 showing, to pad the margin of their majority; Arizona Sen. John McCain getting the process he desires; and so on. A seven-year promise foundational to the identity of a major political party doesn’t die. It just recedes.

There had been some murmuring in the Capitol the past couple of days that Republicans might try to pass tax reform and Obamacare repeal in a combined bill later this year. Republican leaders, though, shut that talk down Tuesday. They are not so silly as to imperil tax cuts—the only thing they really care about—by linking its fate with a health care effort that’s failed time and again these past several months.

“Where we go from here is tax reform,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday. Graham said that they would return to health care after that. “We’re gonna have time to explain our concept,” he said. “We’ll have a better process.”

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum—who went to the Senate lunch Tuesday where Graham and Cassidy announced they wouldn’t vote this week—said afterward that it was his understanding that the “better process” is really the only thing between the party and 50 votes. “Graham and Cassidy basically said [in the lunch] that they’ve surveyed their votes,” Santorum told reporters, “and they feel like they have the votes necessary, but they have to go through the regular order of hearings and a markup.”

As a statement the authors released later in the afternoon made clear, the two votes they think they could get through regular order are McCain—who has few stringent objections to the bill beyond process—and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whose statement Tuesday afternoon didn’t take a position on the bill but did express regret that it was so rushed, without giving her adequate time to “validate data.” Santorum told me that “the idea” is to use the 2019 budget reconciliation bill—the fiscal year for which would begin in Oct. 2018—to revive Graham-Cassidy.”

It’s appealing to view this promise to return to repealing Obamacare as something Republicans are just saying now to avoid political blame. But they really could do it. They still have far more Senate pickup opportunities in the 2018 midterms than Democrats do. It’s not unrealistic to think that, despite their legislative failures, they could run on a culture-war message against college leftists, Colin Kaepernick, CNN, and the removal of Confederate monuments and still pick up a couple of seats on net. They could return in 2019, rev up another budget reconciliation bill, and pass another version of Obamacare repeal with 50 votes and four or five defections. Obamacare repeal obsession is a chronic condition that requires regular treatment plans. It will never end.