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Senate hopes to vote next week on Obamacare repeal, as Trump pressures Republicans to act

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

Senate Republicans announced plans to vote next week on their Obamacare repeal, hoping that a push from President Trump -- and backing from conservative groups -- will bring along the votes to approve an overhaul of the Affordable Care Act.

Republican leaders still don't have the 50 votes needed for passage. The bill, which remains a work in process, threatens to leave 22 million more people uninsured and is unpopular, with backing from just 1 in 5 Americans, polls show.

But the Republican whip, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, told reporters that the leadership hopes to have a new draft ready later this week, which would allow the Congressional Budget Office to analyze it over the weekend, clearing the way for votes later next week. 

Trump and GOP leaders are counting on the looming deadline to nudge reluctant Republicans to quit debating the bill, the Better Care Reconciliation Act, and vote. They're warning GOP senators to consider the bleak political fallout of failing to deliver on their years-long promise to repeal Obamacare.

"What’s standing in the way is just obviously every member of Congress has their own opinion," Vice President Mike Pence said Monday on Rush Limbaugh's radio show.

"I think we're going to get this done," said Pence, who is expected to be needed to cast the tie-breaking vote for passage, since Republicans have just 52 senators in their majority, and some from their ranks will probably oppose the bill.

"It'd be the greatest honor of my life, Rush, if I had the privilege to be able to be the tie-breaking vote to repeal and replace Obamacare," Pence said.

The bill has been rejected by major healthcare providers, doctors and patient advocacy groups who warn it will destabilize insurance markets and leave many without coverage.

But it also has been panned by conservatives who want a more thorough gutting of Obamcare's taxes and mandates for insurance coverage.

In revising the bill, Republican leaders are expected to add provisions to draw conservative support, particularly one from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). It would allow insurers to offer bare-bones policies free of the current law's requirements.

That could create cheaper alternatives, at least for healthy consumers. Critics warn the inevitable effect would be to raise costs for those who are not healthy and leave at least some consumers with plans that don't provide much coverage.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the Cruz plan "a cruel, mean hoax" that would leave policy holders with skimpy plans.

Some of Cruz's fellow Republicans also have expressed opposition.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican, said deliberations continued, but added that the changes being considered would "hopefully address some of the concerns that have been raised."

While Cruz's plan could win right-leaning senators, leaders will also try to appeal to centrists who are worried about steep cuts to Medicaid, perhaps by softening some reductions.

Senators have just a few weeks to act before leaving town for the long August recess, and Republican leaders are counting on pressure from the White House and outside groups to stiffen their members' resolve. 

"I cannot imagine that Congress would dare to leave Washington without a beautiful new healthcare bill fully approved and ready to go!" Trump tweeted Monday morning.

Trump's director of legislative affairs, Marc Short, told reporters that Trump expects the Senate to act -- or revert back to an earlier plan of passing an Obamacare repeal bill now and working later on a replacement plan.

“This is a promise that Republicans have made to voters. It’s a promise that he expects them to deliver on," Short said.

But while Trump was able to cajole reluctant House Republicans to support an earlier GOP bill, dialing them up and inviting them to the White House, such overtures are less powerful among senators, many of who have been in office for years.

Senators are also facing a barrage of protests, at their offices in Washington and in states back home, from voters worried about losing their healthcare. Capitol police arrested 80 protesters Monday. 

Trump has not made as public a show of whipping votes as he did during the House process, and Short said that's because fewer votes are up for grabs.

But senators also have specific concerns and requests that Trump may be less able to fulfill, like the $45 billion in additional funding that Republican senators in states hard hit by the addiction crisis are seeking in the bill for treatments and services. 

Once voting begins, possibly as soon as Tuesday, the Senate will conduct what's called a vote-a-rama -- a potentially daylong session of votes on amendments -- before voting on final passage.

If the bill clears the Senate, it would likely be quickly passed in the House.

Lawmakers are hesitant to recess for August with the issue unresolved.

In a sentiment shared by many influential conservatives, Limbaugh warned Monday, "If  this doesn’t get done, this has consequences I don’t even want to contemplate."

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