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Gehrke: Senate’s backroom Obamacare-repeal bill needs to be debated in the open

First Published      Last Updated Jun 23 2017 07:45 pm

Sen. Orrin Hatch dispatched with the pretense this week when he admitted that he doesn't much care if the public has an opportunity to see the bill he and his Senate Republican colleagues have been working on to repeal Obamacare.

"Well, I think we're not worried so much about that as we are getting it together so we can get a majority to vote for it," Hatch told a reporter with Talking Points Memo.

So there you have it.

All this secret work a small group of Senate Republicans has been doing to write a massive health care bill is not so much about the public as it is about getting the Republican votes they need to undo "Obamacare" and roll back the former president's legacy.

Maybe this brain trust can solve the puzzle and find a way to actually control health care costs, improve quality, expand access and not break the budget.

But if the recent experience with the House version of Obamacare repeal is any indicator, it doesn't inspire confidence. House Republicans steamrolled their bill through the body without hearings, amendments or even an opportunity for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to analyze the impact of the bill.

And with good reason, because when the CBO did look at the bill, it turned out that it would have left 23 million more Americans without health coverage and would slash $834 billion in health care for the poor.

None of that mattered, of course. The vote was as much of a sideshow as President Donald Trump's Rose Garden celebration of its passage, since senators had already made clear that the House bill would never even be considered in the Senate.

Instead, Hatch, Sen. Mike Lee and a small group of all-male senators scurried to their cloistered backrooms to fashion their own Obamacare repeal. The senators reportedly either wrapped up work on the legislation this week or are in the process of putting the finishing touches on the grand plan.

So what does it do? Your guess is as good as mine, and we won't likely find out any time soon, possibly not until just days before the Senate passes the bill.

The motivation seems clear, based on Hatch's comment and others: Republicans will hide the ball as long as they possibly can so they can cram through the massive legislation without having to endure withering opposition that could fracture the tenuous support for the repeal plan.

In another astonishing move, Senate Republicans tried to cut off questions from reporters about the health care bill by banning journalists from filming interviews with senators in the hallways of the Capitol. They backed down after a backlash from journalists and Democratic senators.

Last week, Hatch, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, told Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill that he didn't anticipate any committee hearings on the Republican health care proposal.

"I don't know that there are other hearings, but we have invited you to participate and give your ideas," he said.

That didn't sit well with McCaskill.

"There's a group of guys in a backroom somewhere that are making these decisions. … Listen, this is hard to take," she said. "I know we made mistakes on the Affordable Care Act … and one of the criticisms we got over and over again was the vote was partisan, but you couldn't have a more partisan exercise than what you're engaged in right now."

McCaskill makes a crucial point: The process that the Democrats used to pass Obamacare was far from perfect. It was not nearly as inclusive as it should have been, and you ended up with a bill that was flawed from the outset and then was significantly undermined by subsequent Supreme Court rulings.

If Republicans are intent on doubling down on the Democrats' mistakes, how do they expect the product to be any better?

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