The Senate GOP is once again attempting to not-quite-repeal Obamacare, an effort that has been in fits and starts since the introduction of the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) two weeks ago.
With their last-ditch effort to address Obamacare in peril, senior GOP leadership has begun casting around for someone to blame.
Though the bill has seen widespread opposition across the GOP conference — for the moderates, the bill does too much, for the conservatives, too little — a recent article in Politico makes clear that GOP leadership is attempting to blame one senator, in particular, for the bill’s delay: Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah.
It’s a startling and unfair characterization of Lee, who has done more than nearly any other Republican senator to position the Senate majority to fully repeal the law and keep a nearly decades-long promise to the voters who elected them. For this, Lee receives not the gratitude of his colleagues, but largely their scorn.
The article liberally quotes no less than Utah’s senior senator, Orrin Hatch, heaping blame on Lee for “being against everything” and not “looking for a path to yes.”
Senator Lee was “stunned” when these accusations were read to him by Politico’s reporters. He is right to take issue with them.
First, there is the fact that without Lee’s efforts two years ago, the Senate would not now be in a position to opt for full repeal. Lee is the reason the Senate passed the last repeal bill, in 2015, which set up this current effort. (For the full procedural jujitsu that Lee unleashed on the Senate to accomplish this, click here.) To turn around and say he now “owns” Obamacare is an absurd display of petulance and politicking.
Second, to characterize Lee as the “sole holdout” on the BCRA is flatly false. Opposition to the BCRA is widespread throughout the GOP conference. Not only did Senator Lee announce his opposition to the bill with another senator — Jerry Moran of Kansas — no fewer than five other senators expressed their own opposition to, or reservations about, the BCRA.
Why have these other senators not received the same public shaming as Senator Lee? It’s unknowable, but perhaps it’s because the GOP leadership is confident that the opposition of these senators can be muted with buyouts.
Third, Hatch’s claim that Lee is an “absolutist” fails to line up at all with reality. Lee is a practical legislator as well as a principled one. He admits in the article that he realizes the dynamics of the conference won’t lead to full repeal, so he’s willing to compromise. For Lee, that compromise is in the form of the Consumer Freedom Amendment — an initiative from Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to allow states to create an insurance market alongside Obamacare, which would allow more choice, flexibility, and, crucially, lower premiums. Unfortunately, the Senate leadership took Cruz’s language and altered it in the final draft of the bill, making its ultimate impact uncertain.
However, Lee has been very clear. Fix the amendment, and many of Lee’s concerns with the bill will be resolved. Lee has come to the table — why won’t the leadership?
Finally, that the Senate leadership would draft the BCRA largely out of sight — and then be “shocked” that others in the conference aren’t pleased with the outcome — speaks to a deeper, more dysfunctional dynamic at work within the GOP conference.
Senator Lee and others had been attending health care reform meetings within the Senate for weeks, only to find that the final product reflected almost none of their policy priorities. As Lee put it, he felt as though he’d been talking solely to himself. “Their ears heard it,” the article quotes him as saying, “but I’m not sure it made it any further than that.”
Worse, rather than being open to the concerns of the conference, the GOP leadership chose instead to bludgeon all nay-sayers as obstacles, shame them for holding up Obamacare repeal (despite the fact that, as several senators have pointed out, this bill doesn’t line up with their promise of full repeal) and force the conference to a leadership-driven outcome.
This is a classic McConnell tactic — but one that is losing its influence and resulting in more intraparty divisions and infighting, rather than unification around a collective goal. It’s telling that even with majorities in Congress and their party in the White House, the Republicans are more divided than ever.
The GOP has spent seven years promising repeal of Obamacare. No other senator has shown more fidelity to that promise than Mike Lee. Instead of trying to intimidate Lee in the pages of Politico, the Senate leadership would be wise to work with him.
Rachel Bovard is a former aide to Senator Mike Lee and former director of policy services at The Heritage Foundation.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since publication for clarity.