Update 7/18/17: Republican Mitch McConnell has pulled an effort to replace Obamacare after three conservatives and one liberal in his caucus announced their refusal to support the bill. This underscores the need to pick up additional Senate seats in order to advance President Trump’s agenda.
_Update II: _President Trump, responding to the fact that a clean repeal bill was also set to fail, noted that there would need to be more Republicans elected into the Senate next year in 2018. This effectively sets the stage for a major push against Democrats in states won by the President last Fall.
2018 is Coming.
Let me start this out by saying that I’d like to see Republicans get a functioning, conservative, free-market solution to the rapidly-collapsing Obamacare situation passed through the House and Senate and signed by the President as soon as possible. Frankly, given the seven years of campaigning about that exact plan, it’s baffling to think that no one thought ahead enough to have something ready (I’m imagining a draft behind glass in Paul Ryan’s office “Break Glass in the Event of a Republican President”). However, it looks like whatever version of tweaking Obamacare that’s going to finally wind its way through the Senate probably won’t get support in the House, and, then, Sisyphus walks back down the hill to pick up the boulder.
Take heart! 2018 is nearly upon us. Now, if that elicited groans from the “ugh, another election?” crowd, let me be the one to chide you on not really seeing the big picture here. Several prominent conservative commentators have reminded us in the past few days that Obamacare needed 60 votes in order to pass in the Senate.
The Procedural Issues
Quick procedural tangent: the Senate, on certain bills, needs a three-fifths majority in order to proceed to an up-or-down vote on final passage of the bill. Essentially, this is a function whereby a minority of Senators can prevent a majority from ramming through legislation without time for debate. Nominally, Senators have the prerogative of speaking for as long as they want about bills and issues (this, in practice, isn’t really a thing, but, procedurally, it’s still followed).
There are 52 Republican Senators in the Senate. There are 46 Democrats and 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats. Now, here’s the tricky part. The only way Republicans can avoid the 60-vote threshold is by advancing the Obamacare fix bill through a budgetary process called reconciliation. Basically, the bill can’t muck around with anything outside of budget issues or else it can be subject to the 60-vote standard. So, Mitch McConnell’s (the Republican leader in the Senate) hands are tied with what he can put in the bill.
Have you ever tried to get 52 people to agree to something? Moreover, have you ever tried to get 52 people who are subject to elections and have the ego enough to run for a statewide elected office to try to agree to something? More-moreover, have you ever tried to undermine an entitlement that had front-loaded goodies and massive organizational support from progressives?
The State of the Game
When you look at the Senate landscape, it’s not entirely clear if there’s a path forward to get to a majority in order to pass what we’ll, in charity, call an Obamacare “fix” bill. Some people, like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, have called the bill Obamacare-lite and have accused Republicans of going back on campaign promises to repeal the law. In addition, Senator Paul has stated that a fix bill would actually be worse than Obamacare because it would enshrine a new entitlement and be impossible to get rid of in the future (he’s, well, probably right about that, actually).
The “yeas and nays” are in a state of flux over McConnell’s repeal plan. There are no Democrats looking to support it right now. Moderate Republicans are now, openly, thinking just to scrap the plan and work with Democrats on a fix (see Rand Paul’s exact concerns, supra). Liberal Republican Susan Collins of Maine has expressed her opposition to the current effort by McConnell. McConnell can only lose two Senators (and, even then, the Vice President would have to be in the Chair in order to cast a tie-breaking vote) before the bill would get scrapped.
Compromise isn’t a Fix
“Compromise” such as it’s being bandied about on Capitol Hill isn’t a “bad word.” Sure, the optics of getting no Democrats to support the Obamacare fix is just about as bad as Democrats passing the bill without any Republican support in the first place (remember: the Democrats had 60 votes at the time). However, again going back to Senator Paul’s concerns—when you’ve campaigned for seven years about repealing Obamacare, working with Democrats to rearrange deck chairs on a massive entitlement isn’t really what conservative voters had in mind.
So, what’s the recourse? Well, like we talked about at the beginning, there’s an election next year. Let’s start with the obvious cautionary tales of history. First, the President’s Party typically loses seats in the legislature during his “midterm” elections. Given the vicious anti-Trump rhetoric on the Left and the amount of money pouring into progressive causes, it’s wrong to just jump into analysis while whistling past the graveyard here. Second, we don’t know (yet) what the major issues of the 2018 cycle will be. Sure, we have a good idea about the general framework of the narrative (pro-Trump/anti-Trump, healthcare, spending, and potentially the retirement of Justice Kennedy next June), but, as always, we are a terrorist attack, war declaration, or economic panic from upending the conventional narrative.
The 2018 Situation
Here are the facts: in 2018, Democrats are defending 23 Senate seats. Republicans are defending 8. Also, the whole House is up for re-election as well as 39 governorships, but, for now, let’s focus on the Senate.
Democrats are defending: Washington, Montana, California, New Mexico, Florida, Missouri, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Hawaii and Massachusetts (and, Independents in Vermont and Maine).
Republicans are defending Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee.
On the Republican side, there’s some drama over Jeff Flake’s re-election in Arizona. Flake was (is?) a critic of Donald Trump and Trump had thought about investing money in unseating him. This seems more like palace intrigue than real politics. There was talk about Rick Perry or someone else mounting a challenge against Ted Cruz in Texas, but with Perry safely in the Administration as Secretary of Energy, it’s unlikely Cruz will face a tough primary. The most vulnerable Republican is Dean Heller in Nevada who has been blowing all over the map on healthcare and is taking a lot of heat back home.
While this drama stews on the Republican side, the Democrats are struggling to hold back a torrent that would wash away their ability to oppose President Trump and the Republican majority in the Senate. You probably haven’t heard the media talking about it, but, taking just 8 of those 23 seats held by Democrats would give Mitch McConnell the ability to dramatically expand the repeal effort into something conservatives and moderates could support (without having to contort himself into a pretzel to get through reconciliation).
The Republican Path Forward
So, is it possible (given the two issues of Presidents losing seats and not knowing the future)? Absolutely. 11 of the 23 seats Democrats are defending (and, well, sorta Maine) are states that Donald Trump won.
“Whoa whoa whoa,” you might say here. “Turnout dynamics in midterms are different than Presidential elections and people are more apt to cross parties for incumbents.” You’d be right, of course. However, one of the most interesting statistics from the Trump election was that every Republican Senator who was elected in a “swing state” in 2016 actually beat Donald Trump’s numbers in the state. Sure, there’s an argument that Trump buoyed turnout, but the Republican “brand” was not as tarnished by the top of the ticket as one may have been led to believe if he listened only to the media’s predictions.
So, generally, what’s the best “path to 60”? It depends on who you ask. Most anyone in DC will give the reasons why X Democrat “can’t be beaten” or “but he/she is popular back home despite it being a red state.” Without discounting these opinions, let’s remember that these are the same people who completely wrote off Trump and the chance of Republicans maintaining control of the Senate last year.
A Future We Can Live With
Best case scenario? Retaking Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania and Maine. Yes, yes each Senator, individually, has certain qualities that make him/her difficult to knock off. That’s incumbency talking, folks.
However, if Republicans are incapable of passing a reform of Obamacare and that, thereby, pushes back tax reform and other marquee items of the Trump agenda, there is a persuasive narrative that should be shouted from the rooftops that Republicans need help from voters in 2018 to solidify their bargaining position and give them 60 Senate seats. Democrats are going to be railing hard against Republicans that they are incapable of governing even with their majorities. While that’s a fair criticism, the fact that Democrats are bogging everything (including mission-critical nominees to Administration positions), once voters hear about the shenanigans, they should be convinced to turn out and vote Republican.
Let’s not delude ourselves, Republican infighting and lack of foresight have, generally, created this mess. What we should be able to do with a majority is now requiring Republicans going back to the voters to ask for more help. But, like we’ve talked about several times, here, the alternative is cementing a permanent entitlement in American culture and drastically increasing a debt burden for generations to come.
Republicans deserve a chance to govern, despite their faults. If they aren’t allowed to do so with a simple majority, voters in 2018, the same ones who delivered 10 of those 23 states with Senate Democrats up for re-election to Trump in 2016, should decide that Republicans are worthy of a mandate. We’ll be watching these races closely as the issues develop over the coming months.