For a good while there, veteran Senators Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, and Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, were poster people for that rarest of phenomena: serious bipartisan policy-making. Last October the president acted on long-standing threats and killed cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidies that reimbursed insurers for the required measures they took to hold down out-of-pocket costs for low-income Obamacare customers. Almost immediately, Alexander and Murray — the chairman and ranking minority member, respectively, of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — negotiated a bill to restore CSRs and avoid significant boosts in premiums. And almost immediately, they secured 24 co-sponsors, 12 from each party.
Prospects for the bill’s passage waxed and waned; the main problem was opposition from House Republicans — and off and on, the president — to the bill because it was allegedly a “insurance company bailout” that would also help the “dying Obamacare law” survive. But it got a large boost when in exchange for her critical vote on the GOP tax bill, Senator Susan Collins secured promises from Mitch McConnell and the White House to include Alexander-Murray along with a different Obamacare stabilization measure (providing grants to states for a reinsurance program for high-cost consumers) she was co-sponsoring with Democrat Bill Nelson in the omnibus appropriations bill that was being worked on at the same time.
Well, in the end Collins gave the GOP her vote (which further destabilized Obamacare by repealing its individual health-insurance-purchasing mandate) and there was no vote on the health-care measures she was bargaining for; in fact, there was no omnibus at that point, but just another in a series of stopgap spending bills.
And when the appropriations merry-go-round finally ended last week with passage of a much-delayed omnibus bill, there were no Obamacare stabilization provisions in it at all. And the real irony is that when the deal went down Alexander and Murray were very much on opposite sides of the barricades.
With House Republicans having rejected the Obamacare-stabilization package, Alexander and other Republican senators stuffed it with anti-abortion (a ban on use of any federal funds to subsidize Obamacare policies with abortion coverage, a fight Republicans lost during the original ACA debate) and anti-Obamacare (a codification of the administration’s efforts to allow short-term “junk policies” that evade Obamacare rules) poison pills to Democrats. When Alexander offered the package as a floor amendment requiring unanimous consent, it was Patty Murray who objected, essentially killing the measure.
Alexander and Senate Republicans, of course, claimed that Murray and other Democrats really just wanted to see Obamacare premiums go up this fall in order to blame them on the GOP.
House Republicans and (if he was paying any attention) Donald J. Trump had to chuckle at this collapse in a partnership that once looked so promising, and at their success in ensnaring Senate Republicans in their plan to to screw up Obamacare as much as possible. And as an added bonus, they can now accuse Democrats of responsibility for premium increases, much as Trump is accusing Democrats of “abandoning” the Dreamers whose protections he has sought to strip.