- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 3, 2015

Senate Republicans brushed aside five years of frustration Thursday and fast-tracked an Obamacare repeal bill to President Obama’s desk, fulfilling their pledge to hold Democrats and the White House accountable for a 2010 law they still view as fiscally ruinous and politically misguided.

Though destined for a swift veto, the GOP said the experience offers a road map for 2017, when it hopes to scrap Mr. Obama’s signature domestic achievement and start over with a Republican president and a slim majority in the Senate.

“What we are doing is listening to our constituents, who’ve told us that they’ve had one bad experience after another with Obamacare,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said.

The Senate passed the bill along party lines, 52-47, with only two Republicans — Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Susan Collins of Maine — defecting because it also strips federal funding from Planned Parenthood for one year in the wake of videos showing organization officials negotiating the sale of fetal body parts.

The one absentee was Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is challenging former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president.

Republicans used a budget process known as “reconciliation” that allowed them to pass a revenue-related bill by a majority vote, without having to overcome Democratic-led filibusters that have doomed every previous Obamacare repeal.

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The House passed its version of the bill in October and must approve the Senate’s changes before it is dispatched to Mr. Obama, who formally signaled Wednesday he will veto the bill.

Hoping to make Mr. Obama squirm a bit as he picks up his pen, Republicans argued sweeping wins in the 2014 mid-terms gave them a mandate to crusade against the health-care law, which they’ve blamed for rising premiums, narrow doctor networks and a host of other ills.

The nation’s largest insurer, UnitedHealth Group, recently said it is losing money on the law’s exchange and may pull out entirely by 2017, while more than half of Obamacare’s 23 nonprofit co-ops will not offer plans in 2016, fueling the GOP’s arguments.

In a major address Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan said axing the health care law would remain the GOP’s top priority, even if this year’s repeal effort is doomed.

“We think this problem is so urgent that, next year, we are going to unveil a plan to replace every word of Obamacare,” the Wisconsin Republican said at the Library of Congress.

Democrats were also looking ahead, forcing Republicans who must defend their seats in 2016 to take tough votes Thursday on women’s health and whether, in the wake of another round of mass shootings, terror suspects can buy a gun.

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Republicans beat back the latter effort, with some saying there should only be a 72-hour hour window for authorities to thwart the sale, so people aren’t denied due process and Second Amendment rights.

“There is nothing unconstitutional about preventing a terrorist from buying a gun,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat who also called the Obamacare bill a waste of time that would harm millions of Americans who obtained health coverage.

“Sometimes I wonder what Senate Republicans do when they’re not here in Washington. D.C.,” he said. “Do they talk to their constituents? Do they meet with them?”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, and his chief lieutenants scrambled in recent weeks to gather 51 votes for the reconciliation bill from its 54-member caucus, after an intense debate between pro-lifers who desperately want to defund Planned Parenthood and other conservatives who said the House-passed Obamacare provisions didn’t go far enough.

The Senate’s beefed-up version would phase out the law’s exchange subsidies for private plans and the expansion of Medicaid in select states.

That was designed to win backing of Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah, who said it wasn’t enough to just scrap the law’s insurance mandates on individuals and employers and its taxes on medical device sales and generous employer plans.

A trio of centrist Republicans — Ms. Collins, Mr. Kirk and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — pushed an amendment to restore Planned Parenthood funding, saying they feared that women who rely on the organization for non-abortion services would lose the health care provider of their choice.

Fellow Republicans defeated the measure, 52-48, although Mrs. Murkowski still voted for the overall package.

Meanwhile, Democrats used the “vote-a-rama” on a litany of amendments to sharpen next year’s campaign attack ads.

Senators voted by a 54-45 margin to reject the amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, that would allow federal authorities to bar known terror suspects from getting a gun, and they rejected an attempt by Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, and Sen. Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, to revive a bill that expands background checks.

While Mr. Kirk, who is locked in a tough re-election fight, bucked his party and voted for Mrs. Feinstein’s measure, the four Senate Republicans running for president — Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida — voted “no.”

The chamber made other decisions look easy.

By a whopping 90-10 margin, senators voted to fully repeal Obamacare’s so-called “Cadillac tax” on generous health-insurance plans, displaying a bipartisan appetite to scrap the tax that takes effect in 2018, although Congress hasn’t found a way to replace $90 billion in anticipated revenue over the next decade.

Though many Democrats are willing to scrap the unpopular tax, they blasted Senate Republicans for attempting to phase out the law’s expansion of Medicaid to those making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

They also warned Republicans to leave Planned Parenthood alone, now and in the future. Federal dollars cannot be spent directly on abortion, so Republicans were taking away a range of health services as part of its bid to topple the organization, they said.

“What’s with you guys?” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, who also warned Republicans not to put defunding language in an upcoming budget bill.

“We will win,” she said. “That is not a threat. That is a promise.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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