WASHINGTON -- A breakaway group of five moderate Senate Republicans pushed Monday to delay a bill repealing Obamacare until March -- potentially enough pressure to force the party's leadership to comply.
The step is the latest sign of some Republicans' growing uneasiness about their leadership's plan to repeal the law with no consensus on a replacement as part of an effort to deliver swiftly on one of President-elect Donald Trump's top campaign promises.
Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee, Rob Portman of Ohio, Susan Collins of Maine, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska offered an amendment Monday to the budget resolution that would extend the target date for the committees to write an Obamacare repeal bill to March 3 from Jan. 27.
"As President-elect Trump has stated, repeal and replace should take place simultaneously, and this amendment will give the incoming administration more time to outline its priorities," Corker said in a statement. "By extending the deadline for budget reconciliation instructions until March, Congress and the incoming administration will each have additional time to get the policy right."
With Democrats opposed to a straight repeal bill, Republicans can lose no more than one backer if they want to fast-track their approach before Trump takes office. Republican leaders in the Senate are hoping to adopt the budget resolution -- which would allow an Obamacare repeal bill to pass with 50 votes and escape a Senate filibuster -- early Thursday after a marathon session of amendment votes.
More broadly, the amendment reflects the deep divisions, which persist nearly seven years into Republicans' promises to repeal and replace Obamacare, within the party on what kind of system to set up. Views range from a minimalist approach -- favored by the most conservative members -- that lets the market work its will, to a substantial, but scaled-back government role that maintains significant parts of the law, such as financial assistance to cover low-income people under Medicaid.
On the House side, the new chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus said his group wants to see more details about an Obamacare replacement before voting on the budget resolution.
"We hope they would see the prudence of waiting," Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina said Monday night.
Interviews with many Republicans indicate that the party is no closer to consensus two months after an election that gave them unified control of the White House and Congress.
Even before the new amendment was offered, Cassidy, Collins and other senators pushed to delay any repeal of Obamacare tax increases so that there would be revenue to pay for a replacement plan. This puts them at odds with House conservatives, who have been demanding a full, immediate repeal.
On Monday, more senators said they agreed with a delay on the tax front, including Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota.
John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters that the taxes used to subsidize insurance for millions of Americans could be dealt with later this year in a larger tax overhaul.
Republicans senators are also grappling with the risks of repealing the law before a replacement is ready.
Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said he wants to see a "pretty darn specific" proposal to replace Obamacare before it's repealed.
"Let's start taking test votes on the different elements" and "start making the political points" for "what is going to be a more rational health care system that actually works," Johnson said in an interview. "There is enough resistance and probably recognition" among Republicans that the Senate is likely to move slowly on repeal, he said. "It sounds like President-elect Trump is kind of weighing into it as well, saying, be a little careful here -- we repeal it, it's ours."
Other Republicans are still supporting their leaders' strategy. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said that "if there is a vote to repeal Obamacare I'm going to vote yes," but he wants a three-year delay in implementation for a "comfortable landing." Others also support a swift repeal vote.
"You have to replace it once you repeal. There's a good case to be made to have a trigger that triggers the replacement so everyone knows it's coming. But having them both together is not a necessity," said Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia.
Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the chair of the health committee, indicated that the process of voting to replace Obamacare would take until the summer to complete, and said Republicans are "going to do this step by step."
"We need to carefully reform and replace Obamacare, and when it takes effect, we can finally repeal Obamacare. And so we've got to get the right sequencing on this," Alexander told reporters. "In my view we need to cast most of our votes on that before summer time. It'll probably take two or three steps and then it'll probably take two or three years to implement it over time."
Another source of GOP division is whether a replacement should insure as many people as Obamacare does, in order to avoid the political fallout of throwing people off coverage. Some Republicans, such as Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, say they want their party's alternative to cover at least as many Americans. Others demur on the question: "We'll see. We don't know yet," said Alexander.
The backers of the new amendment insist that they remain committed to the goal of dismantling President Barack Obama's health care law.
"This amendment will ensure that we move forward with a smart, responsible plan to replace the law as quickly as possible," Portman said.
Murkowski said it's simply "common sense" that repeal and replace happen simultaneously.
"I remain committed to repealing the Affordable Care Act, and I am equally committed to ensuring that all Alaskans and Americans, especially the most vulnerable among us and those in rural communities, have access to affordable, quality health care," Murkowski said.
(With assistance from Laura Litvan, James Rowley and Erik Wasson.)
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