The GOP’s best chance of knocking down the Affordable Care Act disappeared Thursday when the Supreme Court sided with the administration in King v. Burwell. With the case decided, the Senate could start holding the anti-Obamacare votes leadership said they wanted to attempt when they took the chamber this year.
But with a crowded floor schedule, the prospect of tough amendment votes under regular order and disagreement over what budget reconciliation should be used for, it’s unclear how Republicans will go about taking those votes.
When Republicans won the Senate last November, prognosticators predicted that they would start off with a symbolic vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, followed with continued efforts to eliminate pieces of the law the House had targeted for years: The 30-hour work week definition, the medical device tax, the employer mandate. Though many would get the president’s veto, at least they could have made it to his desk.
After the House kicked off this year with a vote to redefine full-time employment as a 40-hour work week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said there was “almost no chance” the Senate would not take that vote.
But the vote did not come in the weeks following the House vote. In March, oral arguments at the Supreme Court on King v. Burwell made clear there was a serious threat to the Affordable Care Act’s federal exchange subsidies. And that, in part, froze action on Obamacare. Staffers were told that any changes made to the law could negatively affect standing in the case. And with the future of Obamacare so uncertain, there was little to gain with symbolic votes that would likely force tough amendment votes from Democrats.
Nearly seven months into the 114th Congress, the Senate has taken only two floor votes on Obamacare. One was on an amendment from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to repeal the individual mandate; it failed 54-45 on a party-line vote that required 60 votes to pass. The other was a nonbinding amendment from Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), offered up during “votearama,” that would require all congressional staff to get insurance on the DC exchange. It also failed to get 60 votes, with a tally of 52-46.
The closest the chamber has come to a direct vote on the Affordable Care Act was a vote on the budget, which includes reconciliation instructions to repeal Obamacare. McConnell on Thursday told the New York Times that was the “one vehicle available” for dealing with Obamacare, but no decision was made on when that would happen. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the same thing separately on Thursday, that no decision was made yet on how to pursue a reconciliation vote.
The dust has barely settled on the ruling, but some of the right’s most ardent Obamacare critics want to see action as soon as possible.
“What we want to see them do is what they promised in the budget,” Heritage Action’s Dan Holler said in an interview. “To use the reconciliation process to put a full repeal bill on Obama’s desk.”
He added: “It is notable that six months in, the Senate hasn’t taken a vote on full repeal. A bunch of new Republican senators haven’t had a chance to vote on that, and it’s important for them,” Holler said.
Other right-leaning groups want the Senate to focus on piecemeal repeal efforts.
“There have been so many votes to repeal it, I’m not looking for one more for the heck of it,” Sal Russo, the co-founder of the Tea Party Express said in an interview.
Even with King v. Burwell decided, significant challenges remain to taking Obamacare votes on the Senate floor. The schedule is packed ahead of the August recess, with the Highway Trust fund expiring in July and a prolonged budget battle already taking shape ahead of the fall.