- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Congressional Republicans returned from their summer recess Tuesday facing a swiftly closing window to repeal Obamacare using GOP votes alone, as a mounting September to-do list and procedural deadlines threatened to doom a fast-track effort that was supposed to be dusted off months ago.

GOP leaders kicked off the year by passing a budget written with a sole purpose — fulfilling their seven-year push to kill off the Affordable Care Act, while avoiding a Democratic filibuster. Yet intraparty squabbles and public pushback caused the effort to sputter in the Senate.

The Senate parliamentarian says those fast-track instructions will expire when the fiscal year ends Sept. 30, meaning it’s time for the GOP to use it or lose it. Right now it looks like the clock will run out on their efforts, as bipartisan leaders pivot toward a short-term bill to shore up the markets before sign-ups begin this fall.

“I don’t know whether there will be another attempt at repealing the entire law. I don’t see that as being successful,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of three Republicans who voted with Democrats to sink a limited repeal bill in late July. “I don’t know what the plans are. We have so much to get done this month that to layer a re-fight of that seems unlikely.”

Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday rattled off a laundry list of things Congress must get done this month, from passing a spending plan to keep the government open to lifting the debt ceiling to avoid default on U.S. debts.

Lawmakers are taking up relief funding Hurricane Harvey, even as another storm threatens U.S. territories and the Florida coast, plotting out a tax overhaul and keeping an eye on the nuclear threat from North Korea.

The leader didn’t mention Obamacare at all, and his office responded to questions about the effort by offering to pass along any new statements that Mr. McConnell decides to make on the topic.

It’s stark turnaround from the weeks leading up to the August recess, when efforts to fulfill President Trump’s repeal promise took up much of the chamber’s bandwidth and sent reporters scrambling after Republican senators who struggled to reach consensus on bills written behind closed doors.

The effort hit a brick wall in late July, leaving Republicans without a clear path to repeal before this month’s deadline.

Vocal House conservatives are trying to force a quick vote on repealing Obamacare with a two-year delay, though the Senate already rejected that approach.

A trio of Senate Republicans have an alternative bill that gives states wide latitude and offers a last-ditch chance to keep the repeal discussion alive, but their wait for a formal budget analysis — combined with the pile of legislative items on Congress’ lap — mean partisan attempts at repeal could be doomed until next year.

A spokesman for one of the bill’s lead sponsors — Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — said they are still pushing for a vote before the end of the month.

Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, said he supports efforts to revive the Obamacare discussion this month but that it remains a long shot.

“It’d be pulling a rabbit out of a hat, no doubt about it,” Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, said. “A lot of good people are working on it. I’ve got my fingers crossed.”

Andy Slavitt, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Obama, warned there were “clearly” people who would like to pass the bill crafted by Mr. Graham and Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Dean Heller of Nevada to keep the repeal push alive.

“I can’t it imagine why taking health care from people is a national priority in the face of foreign threats, hurricane recovery, immigration issues, and budget challenges. But to some it might be,” he said.

Barring the last-ditch move, Republicans are planning to use the fast-track budget process, known as reconciliation, to pass a tax overhaul in the coming fiscal year without relying on Democratic votes. They could try to pair that effort with Obamacare repeal, though tax reform is complex enough on its own, and Congress would be butting up against a thorny election year.

As it stands, Mr. Trump is using the bully pulpit to focus on tax cuts instead of reengaging in the health care fight before the Sept. 30 deadline.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, called the parliamentarian’s ruling on Friday — that budget instructions will expire with the fiscal year — a “major victory” for everyone who fought Mr. Trump’s push to scrap Obamacare along partisan lines, though he urged Congress to double down on efforts to extend health coverage to the uninsured.

A leading House Democrat on Tuesday also warned against spiking the football, citing instability in the markets set up by Obamacare and rampant uncertainty due to Mr. Trump’s wavering commitment to the law.

“It’s not going to be victory if we get by Sept. 30,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland said. “Victory is getting a program that works for all Americans.”

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