The election of Doug Jones as the first Democratic senator from Alabama in a generation did many things: It opened a realistic, although still difficult, path for Democrats to capture a Senate majority in 2018, it deepened the divide between the GOP establishment and the self-styled insurgents led by Stephen K. Bannon, the former White House strategist.
And it probably ended GOP hopes of repealing the Affordable Care Act.
I'm David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in Washington and elsewhere in national politics and highlight some particularly insightful stories.
OBAMACARE PROVES STUBBORNLY DURABLE
Throughout the past year, the Trump administration has taken one swing after another at the healthcare law, and seemingly each one has generated a chorus of predictions about the “death of Obamacare.”
That hasn’t happened.
Indeed, this week, as the annual open enrollment period came to a close in most states, Obamacare sign-ups quickened, as Noam Levey wrote.
The number of people signing up this year will be significantly smaller than last year since the open enrollment period was shorter and the administration has consistently discouraged people from enrolling. After four years of dramatic improvement, the percentage of the population with no insurance leveled off this year and almost certainly will tick back upward somewhat in 2018.
Still, millions of Americans will obtain coverage, especially in the states that have actively tried to make the law work. Millions more will get covered under the expansion of Medicaid that the law provided for.
The latest data on sign-ups came as a new study from the Commonwealth Fund, comparing data across states, showed that the law has, indeed, helped patients get to the doctor and pay their medical bills, contrary to the assertions from President Trump and others in his administration that the law was providing coverage that didn’t actually help people.
The GOP will take another whack at the healthcare law in the tax bill that is expected to come up for a final vote next week. The tax measure would repeal the most unpopular part of the healthcare law — the requirement that individuals get insurance or pay a fine.
That will certainly destabilize insurance markets in some areas, but it almost surely will not result in a wholesale collapse. A widely repeated forecast that 13 million people will lose coverage as a result of ending the mandate comes from a Congressional Budget Office analysis that the budget office, itself, calls outdated.
The only way to truly undo what the law has accomplished would be to cut off the billions of dollars that currently go to help more than 20 million people pay medical bills. Republicans tried repeatedly this year to cut back on that flow of funds with their various efforts to repeal Obamacare. They were poised to repeat that effort in 2018. But Jones’ upset victory now will likely put that prospect out of reach in the Senate.
Jones made healthcare a top issue in his campaign and explicitly told voters he would oppose repeal. "Repeal and replace is a political slogan," he would say. "It's not something that's workable."
Healthcare is not the only issue on which Jones’ election has real consequences. The Supreme Court is another. Anti-abortion conservatives had hoped that Trump could replace Justice Anthony M. Kennedy or Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a nominee who might overturn Roe v. Wade or at least severely restrict its reach.
That prospect also now appears much less likely.
Jones campaigned openly as a supporter of abortion rights. At least two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, are also abortion-rights supporters, once again giving that side of the issue a majority in the Senate.
As Mark Barabak wrote before the election, the Alabama Senate race had become a lose-lose proposition for Republicans. Before the election, they feared the political cost of a Roy Moore victory. Now, they’re beginning to tote up the policy costs of his loss.
DEMOCRATIC PROSPECTS BRIGHTER FOR 2018
It’s also now possible to see a route by which Democrats could recapture a Senate majority in 2018, although that task remains difficult.
As Cathy Decker wrote in her election-night analysis, Jones’ win was partially a fluke caused by Moore’s many flaws, but it also highlighted problems that Republicans face across the country in 2018: an unpopular president, a badly divided party, an energized opposition.
The very large turnout of black voters in Alabama also quieted fears among Democrats that a key part of their voter base might no longer turn out without Barack Obama on the ticket.
Before Jones’ victory, Democrats needed a net of three seats to win back a Senate majority and only had two real prospects for pickups — Arizona and Nevada. Now, winning those two seats would do the trick, provided they hold all the seats they currently have. That’s a tough prospect, but at least mathematically possible.
SPEAKING OF MATH — THE TAX BILL
Inch by inch, the GOP leadership is getting close to final passage of its tax bill, which would dramatically reduce the corporate tax rate and sharply reduce taxes for America’s most affluent families.
But they’re not quite there yet. A late snag involved Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). The senator has campaigned to increase the child-care tax credit, arguing that a bill that would cut taxes by hundreds of billions of dollars for the wealthiest Americans should also provide more of a break for working families with children — a group that Republicans rely heavily on for votes.
In particular, Rubio wanted families who owe no income tax to be able to claim the child-care credit to get a refund of the payroll taxes they pay.
Rubio, backed by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, tried and failed to get an expanded child-care credit included when the bill was voted on in the Senate earlier this month. Then he hoped the House-Senate conference committee would add a provision. When that didn’t happen, the senator faced a rising chorus of derision from people — including some past supporters — who said he was developing a dangerous reputation for surrendering in legislative fights.
So he insisted he would vote against the bill unless the credit was expanded. Lee said he was undecided. Separately Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who opposed the tax bill in the Senate because it would increase the federal deficit, says he’s still leaning against it.
GOP leaders might have been able to get the bill through the Senate without Rubio — Vice President Mike Pence postponed a trip to the Middle East to be available in case of a tied vote. But they really didn’t want to run that risk.
So they mostly yielded to Rubio on Friday. How they pay for the change was not immediately clear. Someone else’s tax break would have to shrink.
As it stands, there’s a good chance the tax bill could cut government revenue more than forecast, increasing the deficit even more significantly, Don Lee wrote.
OTHER NOTABLE STORIES
The Federal Communications Commission has voted to repeal net neutrality rules, a milestone for the Republican deregulation push, Jim Puzzanghera reported. That means fast lanes could be coming to the internet. Is that a good thing?
Chris Megerian and Joe Tanfani reported on private texts released by the Justice Department that show FBI agents exchanging insults about Trump. The text messages have become a major talking point for Republican critics of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his investigators. But in testimony before Congress, Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod J. Rosenstein rejected the GOP complaints and gave Mueller a strong endorsement.
Meantime, Trump’s lawyer says Mueller’s investigators have finished interviewing White House staff.
The Senate, which has rushed through many of Trump’s judicial nominees, is starting to push back on at least some of the more controversial ones. This week, Brett Talley, picked to be a district judge in Alabama, was forced to withdraw after Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Judiciary Committee chairman, withdrew support for him. At least a couple more nominees are expected to follow suit.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S TWEETS
That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.
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