Surprise: Collins, Alexander withdraw demand for ObamaCare subsidies in next CR

All hail Republican unity! Er … not so fast. Now that the GOP managed to hold together long enough to pass a tax reform bill that included a repeal of the ObamaCare individual mandate, the cost of the bargains made may open up a civil war between House and Senate Republicans. That repeal required a promise that House conservatives flat-out reject, and they’re threatening a showdown:

Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are about to lock horns over Obamacare — part of a House-Senate clash that needs to be resolved by Friday to avert a government shutdown.

McConnell promised moderate GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine that he would prop up President Barack Obama’s signature health law in a must-pass, year-end spending bill — so long as she backs tax reform. But Ryan’s more conservative conference is flatly rejecting that idea and urging the Wisconsin Republican to stand firm against his Senate counterpart.

Or at least it did at the time Politico reported it this morning. By this afternoon, Collins and Lamar Alexander had decided that valor is the better part of discretion, at least for now:

That may resolve the conflict for a few weeks. It won’t settle it for long, though.

Eventually, Collins will demand that McConnell deliver on their deal to get the Alexander-Murray bill passed as part of the upcoming omnibus bill. That would allow insurers to receive the cost-savings reduction (CSR) subsidies that the Obama administration paid without approval from Congress, at least for a few more years. The argument for this is that the repeal of the individual mandate (which Collins supported as well) will further destabilize the individual insurance markets, giving Congress more breathing room for a comprehensive reform. The CBO poured a little cold water on that idea in October, but McConnell made the promise anyway. House Republicans want to know why they should have to take yet another politically risky vote when the Senate had plenty of opportunities to pass the more comprehensive reforms that the lower chamber passed in 2017, and it’s not a bad question.

But it’s not just the acute issue, either. Fueling this feud is a sense among House Republicans that their Senate counterparts take them for granted. After taking politically risky votes on ObamaCare repeal not just once but multiple times only to watch the bills die in the upper chamber, some want to start flexing their muscle in the other direction:

House Republicans have fumed for months to the speaker that the House seems subservient to the Senate.

“Right now, it feels like the House has no power,” Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio said in a recent interview. Fellow Freedom Caucus member Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania agreed in a short interview Tuesday evening: “I’m asking myself: What’s the point of being a member of Congress if all you do is wait for the Senate to tell you what they want and then say, ‘OK’? That’s our position right now.”

So where does abortion come into this fight? House conservatives signaled that they might be willing to pull McConnell’s chestnuts out of the fire in exchange for including the Hyde Amendment as statutory language with funding for CSR subsidies. That would codify into statute the prohibition on federal spending for abortions that presently only exists as a year-to-year rider on the appropriations themselves. Not only would that lose Collins, it would almost certainly keep Republicans from getting enough Democrats to overcome a filibuster, the Hill reported yesterday:

House Republicans say two ObamaCare measures that Senate GOP leaders are expected to attach to the stopgap as part of a deal with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) must include Hyde Amendment language prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortion.

It would be a “stone cold nonstarter” for many House Republicans to vote for a stopgap that includes the ObamaCare measures without the abortion restrictions, said one House GOP appropriations aide.

“It won’t pass the House if you don’t have Hyde protections,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.).
But Democrats oppose including the language, which they see as an expansion of the existing Hyde Amendment. They argue including the language could discourage private insurers from covering abortions and insist they won’t back the stopgap if it is added.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said Tuesday that adding Hyde language would “kill it altogether.”

Senate Republicans need at least eight Democrats or independents to back the stopgap to overcome a filibuster. The government will shut down on Saturday unless a new funding measure is approved.

Politico reports that Ryan’s rank and file might revolt if McConnell pushes them to accept a bill with the CSR subsidies and no Hyde language. Given their frustration with the Senate this year, that seems almost an inevitable result, and yet McConnell can’t afford to renege on Collins with a 51-vote majority in 2018. He has to keep her in the fold if McConnell wants to get judicial nominations through the Senate, and the Hyde demand will prompt a shutdown threat from Democrats, who will only be too glad to exploit the divisions within the Republican caucuses.

Someone will have to back down, but probably not before it gets ugly. Collins and Alexander did this time, but don’t expect them to make it a habit. Eventually, she will want the quo for which she gave McConnell the quid, and that’s when this will blow up. The fact that Ryan’s caucus is already talking on the record with news outlets over this clash does not bode well for continued Republican unity.

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