Photographs by AP/JACQUELYN MARTIN
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer displays a letter from Senate Democrats urging their Republican colleagues to join in working on a bipartisan health care overhaul bill. Saying the House bill “is so discriminatory against women,” Schumer called it “a very, very bad thing” to exclude women from the group of GOP senators crafting a bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the criticism and said all 52 Republican senators were shaping the plan.
Originally published May 10, 2017 at 03:52a.m., updated May 10, 2017 at 03:52a.m.
WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fended off criticism Tuesday that a working group of Republican senators he's asked to craft a health care bill lacks women, saying all 52 GOP senators were shaping the legislation.
The all-male makeup of the 13-member group was an irritant among some of the chamber's five GOP women. It also became a target for Democrats eager to paint the evolving Republican legislation as a measure that's damaging to women needing medical care, even as key decisions are being made by men.
"That's really up to the leadership," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the longest-serving female GOP senator, said of the group's lack of women. "It seems to me they've already made their decision. The panel has apparently been meeting for some time, and I'm not a member of it."
Asked about the group, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said, "I just want to make sure we have some women on it."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the No. 3 Senate Democratic leader, said, "We know it makes a difference when women are in the room, and we know it makes a difference when women aren't in the room on what is brought up, how it's seen and how it's put together."
GOP efforts to repeal the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Car Act have shifted to the Senate, five days after Republicans pushed a version of the legislation through the House.
Senate Democrats on Tuesday asked Republicans to drop their bid to repeal former President Barack Obama's health care law, offering to help improve the nation's health care system if they did so.
In a letter to Republican leaders, Democrats argued that the legislation faces "an uncertain path to the president's desk."
Facing solid Democratic opposition, Republicans -- who control the Senate 52-46 -- can lose only two GOP senators' votes and still prevail with Vice President Mike Pence breaking a 50-50 tie.
"If repeal is abandoned, we stand ready to work with you to help all Americans get the affordable health care they need," said the letter, signed by all 46 Senate Democrats and two independents who side with them.
Democrats wrote that they'd work with the GOP to reduce premiums and drug costs, stabilize insurance markets and help small businesses provide health coverage.
GOP senators have made it clear they will likely make substantial changes in the House bill. Some have criticized that measure's cuts in the Medicaid program for poor and disabled people and the federal subsidy changes that would leave many consumers with higher out-of-pocket costs. The loss of coverage to an estimated 24 million people has also drawn resistance.
The 13 senators McConnell appointed to the informal group include himself and other party leaders and committee chairmen, conservative mavericks, lawmakers from states that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and others. McConnell said all GOP senators are meeting daily and discussing the health care effort.
"The working group that counts is all 52 of us, and we're having extensive meetings" daily, said McConnell. "Nobody's being excluded based on gender."
Pressed by reporters, McConnell added, "You need to write about what's actually happening, and we're having extensive discussions about the real issues. Everybody's at the table."
White House spokesman Sean Spicer distanced President Donald Trump from the group's membership.
"I think the more voices that we can put on a panel to help get this done, the better. So, to the extent -- I'm not going to tell Leader McConnell or the White House is not going to tell him how to conduct a panel," Spicer said.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the House bill "is so discriminatory against women." He cited a provision that could let insurers levy higher premiums on some people with pre-existing medical conditions, which in the past have included pregnancy.
"It's a very, very bad thing" to exclude women from the working group. "They're more than half the population," he said.
One of the Senate's most moderate Republicans, Collins, 64, is viewed as one who might vote against the GOP bill.
Collins told reporters that GOP women senators "are not afraid to make their voices heard" and said she was not worried that the women would have no input. She said she's working with Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., on an alternative health care overhaul and with other senators on how to revamp Medicaid.
She said she'd spent 15 minutes at Tuesday's Senate GOP lunch describing a high-risk pool Maine uses to help cover costs for people with serious diseases who are expensive to treat. She said replicating Maine's program nationally would cost $15 billion yearly, "which I do not see in the House bill."
The working group met Tuesday, and members said they discussed how to handle the House's plan to phase out the current law's expansion of Medicaid to more low-income earners.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who has criticized those Medicaid cuts, attended the private meeting, senators said. Her state is among the 31 that has accepted additional money to expand Medicaid.
Taking their time
In addition, some Republican senators said it's unclear whether their efforts will repeal all of the taxes imposed under the 2010 law.
"That's hard to say right now. We just have to see," said Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, whose panel oversees health care and tax policy. "It's going to be negotiated."
The uncertainty comes despite what Hatch said on the floor of the Senate in February, when he called repealing the taxes essential. Hatch and other GOP senators, including Budget Chairman Mike Enzi, are signaling they're going to move slowly as they consider the case for and against repealing the health care taxes.
Some of the Republican senators said they're wary of the loss of revenue that would result and how that could jeopardize helping the uninsured obtain coverage. "I think we'll take our time on that one," said Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota.
The House bill would eliminate taxes that affect insurers and medical-device makers, as well as individuals earning more than $200,000 a year, who face a 3.8 percent tax on investment income. There's also a 0.9 percent Medicare surcharge for top earners. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in March that the revenue lost from repealing the taxes would total $999 billion over a decade.
Cassidy suggested that Congress needs the money from the health care taxes to fund a replacement to meet Trump's promises of protecting coverage for Americans.
"If you eliminate pay-fors, you eliminate your ability to fulfill President Trump's pledge -- his contract with the voter," said Cassidy, a physician.
Information for this article was contributed by Alan Fram, Mary Clare Jalonick, Darlene Superville and Matthew Daly of The Associated Press; and by Sahil Kapur and Steven T. Dennis of Bloomberg News.
A Section on 05/10/2017
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