Two dozen senators — half Republican, half Democrat — signed onto a Senate plan Thursday to resume critical Obamacare payments and empower governors to experiment with the 2010 health law.
The 12 Republican co-sponsors are critical because if all 48 members of the Democratic caucus voted for the bill as well, it would be enough to overcome a filibuster and clear the bill — should GOP leaders agree to bring it to the floor.
“Very few bills come to the floor with that many sponsors originally,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who negotiated the deal with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.
Mr. Alexander said he expects more lawmakers to join in.
The 26-page bill would approve payments in 2018 and 2019 for what’s known as “cost-sharing reductions” — federal money sent to insurers to reimburse them for covering out-of-pocket health care costs of lower-income Americans. Mr. Trump recently said the administration can no longer legally make the payments without congressional approval, prompting fears of higher premiums.
Mr. Trump appeared to back the new deal on Tuesday, then seemed to back off it Wednesday.
On Thursday, he was noncommittal, and appeared to be looking ahead to another repeal fight next year, where he wants to send Obamacare money to the states and put decisions in their hands through block grants.
“I like people working on plans at all times. I think, ultimately, block grants is the way to go,” Mr. Trump said.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer called on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to forge ahead and put the Alexander-Murray deal on the floor for a vote, saying quick passage can assuage health markets that have been left skittish by Mr. Trump’s moves.
Mr. Alexander said it would be foolish not to calm the insurance markets, since any GOP replacement of Obamacare wouldn’t start until 2020 at best.
“What’s conservative about creating chaos so millions can’t afford insurance?” Mr. Alexander said.
Some conservatives don’t want to approve funding that appears to prop up Obamacare, however, and House GOP leaders have dismissed the plan, saying the Senate should focus on repeal.
Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker has called the deal “unacceptable,” while House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has advised Senate Republicans to stay focused on repeal, prompting Sen. Ron Johnson and others to work with House members to include more state flexibility that would give the GOP a head start on a block-grant proposal waiting in the wings.
“I’ve been working with very noteworthy House members, moderates and conservatives, on a very reasonable proposal to fund the [cost-sharing payments],” Mr. Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, said on “The Hugh Hewitt Show.”
In exchange for continued payments, which Democrats wanted, the deal would also allow states limited flexibility from some Obamacare rules — though it would not have tinkered with the strict coverage requirements that force plans to include a broad range of services.
GOP sponsors include Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, whose plan to replace Obamacare with state block grants fell short in September. Mr. Trump wants to revive their plan in the spring, so their support for the Alexander-Murray plan as a stopgap solution is significant.
A bipartisan group of 10 governors also want congressional leaders to take up the bill, so insurers in their states don’t raise their premiums to make up for missing cost-sharing money — or withdraw from the marketplace altogether.
The new bill would stabilize the markets and keep costs in check, they said.
“Senators Alexander and Murray have negotiated in good faith and developed a bipartisan agreement that will help achieve these goals,” said a letter from the group, spearheaded by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. “Their legislation deserves a vote by the House and Senate.”
Other supporters include the health insurers’ top lobbying group — America’s Health Insurance Plans — the National Retail Foundation, the American Medical Association, the political advocacy arm of the American Cancer Society and AARP, which lobbies for older Americans.
⦁ Dave Boyer and Sally Persons contributed to this report.