Nice catch by Michael Warren, spotting a key bit in this new New York piece. Can Senate Dems get the votes to block Price’s confirmation as the new chief of HHS? Er … no. Not a chance. Can they inflict some pain on Trump and the GOP even in a futile effort, though? You betcha.
Instead, we are about to witness the most significant term of Schumer’s career. He has already earned the allegiance of Democratic senators by naming a number of them to newly created leadership posts. (“It’s like Oprah,” jokes one Senate aide. “You get a new leadership post! And you get a new leadership post!”) And it’s likely that Schumer will hold the caucus together during the confirmation process for Trump’s nominees. Senate Democrats appear to be unanimous in their opposition to Tom Price, Trump’s choice for Health and Human Services secretary, and they hope to raise such a ruckus about Medicare during Price’s hearings that at least three Republicans decide to vote against Price, too, thus handing Democrats their first scalp of the Trump era.
According to various Senate aides, Schumer doesn’t believe his party has a chance of torpedoing any other Trump nominees, but he hopes to make their confirmations as bruising — and, with smart floor management, as prolonged — as possible. (Schumer himself declined to comment.) “The goal will be to show the public how controversial these nominations are,” explains a Senate Democratic aide.
Schumer’s right that virtually all of Trump’s nominees should sail through, even Rex Tillerson thanks to the strong support he’s gotten from the Republican establishment. (I’d keep an eye on Steve Mnuchin, though, whose history as a mortgage banker might spook some Senate Republicans.) As for Price, which three Republicans are supposedly going to help Democrats Bork Trump’s handpicked choice to oversee the overhaul of ObamaCare, the most consequential domestic policy reform of his first term? Price’s defeat wouldn’t just be a humiliating defeat for Trump, it would upend the nascent “repeal and replace” effort before it’s begun. A strict party-line vote is probable, but thanks to Harry Reid’s filibuster reform in 2013, that’s all the GOP needs to confirm Price. And Schumer knows it. So what’s this really about?
It’s about Medicare. Since the day Price’s nomination was announced last month, Dems have been salivating at the thought of hanging entitlement reform around Trump’s neck. Here’s the NYT on November 30th:
“We say to our Republicans that want to privatize Medicare, go try it, make our day,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the incoming Democratic leader, mustering his best Clint Eastwood/Ronald Reagan impersonation…
Mr. Price is not only a leading proponent of repealing the Obama-era health care law, but he has embraced Republican efforts to move future Medicare users into private insurance programs and raise the eligibility age. He told reporters shortly after the Nov. 8 election that he anticipated Republicans would embark on a substantial Medicare overhaul within the first six to eight months of Donald J. Trump’s presidency.
Senate Democrats intend to press Mr. Price on this subject during his confirmation hearings. They see a wide opening for political gain, given the 57 million older Americans who rely on Medicare — including many white Midwesterners with financial worries who voted for Mr. Trump.
One of the key Republican attack lines on ObamaCare before the 2010 midterms was that it would end up siphoning off critical funding for Medicare. As you may recall, the GOP did okay in November of that year. Now Democrats want to turn it around on them, keying off of Price’s support for a voucher system as a potential replacement for Medicare. The subject reportedly came up at a dinner held at Heidi Heitkamp’s house a few weeks ago for Democratic senators from red states who are facing difficult reelections in 2018. If you’re expecting Heitkamp, Manchin, McCaskill, etc, to join the GOP in voting for Price’s confirmation, think again: “The Democrats at Ms. Heitkamp’s dinner discussed how to highlight and, potentially, block Mr. Price’s appointment, according to an attendee.” The older blue-collar Americans who rely most heavily on Medicare are a pillar of Trump’s national support and, needless to say, a key bloc in the states these centrist Dems are running in. The surest way to get them to rethink voting GOP two years from now is to convince them that Trump and the new, even more Republican Senate will take away their Medicare if they do. It’s hard to think of another policy, foreign or domestic, that could do more damage to Trump more quickly than Medicare reform — if Democrats win the messaging war over it, that is.
But that’s why Price and other entitlement reformers like Paul Ryan see a huge upside to Trump, even though he’s not a fellow traveler ideologically. If anyone on the right can win that messaging war, it’s him. Not only is he the only person in the GOP right now with the populist cred necessary to sell Medicare reform to the masses, there hasn’t been anyone with that sort of cred in the party for ages. He and he alone is capable — in theory — of convincing middle-class Americans that something needs to be done to make entitlements sustainable before they cannibalize the federal budget and trigger a fiscal crisis. If he’s onboard with the cause, he’s a godsend. The trillion-dollar question is whether he’s onboard, and whether he’s prepared to stay onboard once Schumer et al. begin carpet-bombing him and Price with attacks. The fact that he nominated Price for HHS and Mick Mulvaney, another entitlement reformer, for OMB suggests that he’s prepared to at least test the waters of public opinion on Medicare. But then, so was Bush when he pushed Social Security privatization after his reelection in 2004 and you know how that turned out. If the Democratic offensive against Price begins to drive Trump’s polling down, does he cut and run? It’s unimaginable that he’d surrender by pulling Price’s nomination, but he could try to reassure nervous voters that he’ll flatly refuse to sign any bill that would drastically overhaul Medicare. If Price wants to be HHS chief, that’s fine, but he’ll have to give up the dream of major entitlement reform to do it.
If that’s what happens, that in itself is a victory for Schumer. He’ll have muscled the new Republican president into a “no entitlement reform” position and placed him at odds with the fiscal hawks in the party like Ryan, Price, and Mulvaney. It’ll be populists versus conservatives on the right, with knives out. Here’s something Ann Coulter, a loud and proud Trumper, posted two days before Price was nominated in November:
Medicare IS NOT WHAT THE ELECTION WAS FOUGHT OVER. If Ryan wants to change Medicare, then run for president on that & see how far you get. https://t.co/NrJfdXC6C3
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) November 27, 2016
That’ll be the standard populist line if the party dissolves into civil war. Trump didn’t run on entitlement reform; if anything, he ran against it, promising over and over to protect Social Security and Medicare in order to reassure working-class voters that they weren’t risking the “social safety net” by voting for him. If Trump ends up in a fight over Medicare, either with Schumer and the Democrats or Ryan and the Republicans, he’s going to start burning political capital that would otherwise be spent on policy reforms more important to his base, like ObamaCare and immigration. Imagine Trump losing a political war over Medicare and ending up so badly damaged that he can’t force through a deal on, say, better immigration enforcement. His base will be furious, especially since it’ll appear as though he sacrificed his own agenda in hopes of pushing through Paul Ryan’s agenda first. All of which makes it very strange, frankly, that he went with Price at HHS and Mulvaney at OMB. Those are some mighty fiscally conservative choices for a president-elect who’s not so fiscally conservative.
Here are two snippets of Trump on the campaign trail this past year talking about Medicare. The key bit in the second clip comes at around 40 seconds in. He’s all for eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse” from Medicare, but that’s lip service, the sort of thing politicians say when they don’t want to enact more meaningful reforms. Even Chuck Schumer would agree to that. Exit question: What if the GOP Congress passes Medicare reform and sends it to a reluctant Trump’s desk? They could get it through with just 51 votes in the Senate via budget reconciliation, meaning they’d need no support from Democrats. But then, why would they risk their own necks politically to push it through if they didn’t have the president’s assurances first that he’d sign it?