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Senators show little sign of unity on health care reform

Sen. Jeff Merkley speaks to KATU from Capitol Hill on June 14, 2017. (SBG)

While senators extolled the virtues of bipartisan unity in the wake of a shooting at a congressional baseball practice, that sentiment did not bring them any closer to consensus on a health care reform bill.

By the end of this month, Senate Republicans hope to vote on a version of the American Health Care Act that passed in the House in May. They are expected to make a number of changes to the legislation, but details of their bill have not yet been made public.

“I think that’s very important and a high priority on our agenda,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., on Wednesday afternoon.

The bill would repeal significant elements of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the House version would result in 23 million fewer people having insurance in ten years, some by choice and some due to higher costs.

Senators spoke to Sinclair Broadcast Group on Capitol Hill hours after a gunman opened fire on the Republican congressional baseball team at a field in Alexandria, Virginia. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., and three others were wounded in the attack.

“At a time like this, we realize we’re not just Republicans and Democrats but Americans,” said Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala.

However, he also acknowledged that the two parties are still not working together on health care.

“The Democrats won’t help us, so we’re going to have to figure out a way to stabilize the markets, lower premiums and make sure people actually get health care,” Strange said.

Democrats admit the individual insurance marketplaces established by the ACA are struggling, but they place blame on President Donald Trump and Republicans for destabilizing the markets and not giving insurers confidence that key subsidies will be paid.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., suggested Republicans are the ones fostering division.

“In general, what we need is a desire to solve problems and work together and right now we have the opposite of that,” he said, pointing to the small Republican working group that is crafting the Senate health care bill behind closed doors.

Democrats say Republicans are afraid to release the text of the bill, complaining that GOP leadership plans to bring it to the floor for a vote without hearings and with extremely limited debate.

“It’s totally against everything that a deliberative congressional body stands for,” Merkley said.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, contrasted this process to the months of public hearings and weeks of debate that preceded the vote on the ACA.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.

According to Brown, the provisions believed to be in the bill would cause “serious damage” to Medicaid over time. Some moderate Republicans are seeking a slower rollback of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion than the House bill contained, but Democrats say that will still eventually reduce coverage for millions of poor families.

“They should be ashamed of themselves for doing it this way,” Brown said, “and particularly when you think this is a bunch of elected officials who have health insurance paid for by taxpayers writing this bill that will take insurance away from hundreds of thousands of working Ohio families.”

Merkley vowed to do everything he can to stop the bill, but the minority party’s options are limited. If they can get 50 votes, Republicans plan to use the reconciliation process to pass it, which means Democrats will not be able to filibuster.

“When legislation is crafted in the dark of night and those who are crafting it are terrified of the public response, you know there is something terribly wrong with that legislation,” Merkley said.

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