If you needed break from discussing whether football players have a right to kneel during the national anthem, you could have done worse last night than watch CNN’s Town Hall debate on health care, especially if you are a Minnesotan. Our senior U.S. senator, Amy Klobuchar, was assigned and played the role of the moderate liberal in the debate, and did a good job of trashing the Graham-Cassidy-repeal-replace-Obamacare bill that may come to a vote soon in the U.S. Senate.
The stakes seemed low because Graham-Cassidy had been pronounced all-but-dead before the debate began. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, the authors of the bill, showed up and behaved themselves but brought only two pretty lame arguments, namely:
1. Obamacare is terrible (I believe they managed to avoid the fashionable Republican words “collapsing” and “imploding,” although Graham definitely called it “failing”); and:
2. Just give the (federally collected) money to the state governments and let them run health care; if you don’t like it, it’s easier to vote your state officials out.
Klobuchar’s teammate for the evening was Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, whose arguments contained an internal tension, namely that Obamacare is better than Graham-Cassidy but that single-payer (aka “Medicare-for-all”) would be even better. In a nod toward gradualism, Sanders suggested last night that a good step would be to lower the age of Medicare from 65 to 55. Another idea he advocated — in order to reduce costs— was to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices.
Klobuchar has not joined the “Medicare-for-all” bandwagon, but she does favor Medicare using its bulk-purchasing power to negotiate lower prices for drugs, and also favors a measure that would bar drug companies from paying off manufacturers of cheaper, generic drugs to stay out of the U.S. market. Klobuchar is the cosponsor (along with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa) of a bipartisan bill to do that, and she emphasized last night the importance of working across party lines. She also noted that “the Republican governor of Ohio” – that would be former presidential candidate John Kasich – is also publicly opposed to the Graham-Cassidy bill.
Bipartisanship was a theme for Klobuchar all evening. She talked up the efforts by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, who chairs the Senate Health Care Committee, and ranking Democrat Patty Murray of Washington state to work up a bipartisan batch of smaller reforms, although there is little evidence so far that the effort is thriving.
Late in the debate, Graham said Democrats are not sincere about wanting bipartisanship. His proof? That the leader of Senate Democrats, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, had told Republicans not to bother coming into the room to discuss bipartisan changes until they take their demand to repeal the Affordable Care Act off the table. Maybe I’m blind to Graham’s logic, but I would assume that Schumer is saying that he is open to bipartisan approaches to making Obamacare work better, but not to repealing it.
Cassidy also said during the debate that he had sought Democratic co-sponsors for his bill, but couldn’t find any. Of course, he didn’t say whether he had offered any substantive concessions to attract Democrats. (Did I mention that Cassidy is a physician? He did — about 20 times.)
Soon the calculations over bipartisanship may change dramatically. As you have probably read over recent weeks, there are quirks in Senate rules that make it possible for Senate Republicans to pass a health care bill with just 51 votes (or even 50 with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaker) if they can get it done by Sept. 30. The quirk is that if they attach the bill to the so-called budget “reconciliation process,” filibusters are not permitted. The Republicans hold a 52-48 majority. But over the course of last week, two Republican senators (Rand Paul of Kentucky and Graham’s best friend, John McCain) had announced they would vote no.
When CNN set up this debate, there was still some Republican hope for at least a 50-50-plus-Pence vote. But earlier Monday, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, confirmed that she would vote no (hence the lower stakes).
Unless someone changes their mind — or unless Republicans decide to change the rules — they will miss the window, which could mean that the advent of Republican control of both the executive and legislative branches would nonetheless not produce Republicans’ long-promised repeal of Obamacare.
Lastly, in the age of Trump it’s worth noting that the 90-minute CNN debate was extremely courteous and could even be called substantive. The senators did not call each other poop-heads even once and declared great mutual respect. (Both Republicans declared Sanders to be “the most honest” of all senators, which sounds like a compliment, and partially is, but is also code for all-Democrats-are-socialists-but-only-Bernie admits-it.) Still, in these times, we have to notice civility when we stumble on it.