The Hoover Institution’s Lanhee Chen joined me this morning to discuss failure to move forward on debate on health care bill next week:
HH: I’m joined by Lanhee Chen. He is the David and Diane Steffy research scholar at the Hoover Institution, along with Avik Roy, one of the two great policy authorities here. But I want to talk politics for a bit this morning, Lanhee. Good morning, thank you for getting up early to talk to me.
LC: Hey, Hugh, good to be with you.
HH: What are the consequences of senators, four senators who vote no on the motion to proceed to debate next week?
LC: Well, the consequence is we are stuck with Obamacare. I mean, that’s really what this comes down to. There’s really no more obfuscating the point, Hugh, and that is that if we can’t get to debate on this bill, if senators don’t vote to proceed to debate on the bill, we are basically acknowledging that Obamacare is going to remain the law of the land, and all we are going to be able to do is tweak it around the edges. That’s really what this is. And you can primp and you can preen, and you can pretend like it’s about principle, but really, this is about a basic function of why a Republican Congress got elected, and that is to repeal and replace the law. And you can’t do that if you don’t even vote on the basic motion to go to debate.
HH: You can primp and you can preen, but what’s is say politically about you?
LC: Well, I mean, obviously the reason these various senators are doing it, I mean, I think they each have their own reasons, but what I think it comes down to is they base the political calculation, they feel they are better off supporting the continuation of Obamacare than supporting the repeal of Obamacare. That must be what it means. That’s the only reason I can think of. I mean, you know, these members have very different rationales for doing what they’re doing. So you know, Rand Paul is out there saying well, look, I want complete repeal. And you know, look, I’d love to be in the National Basketball Association.
LC: But that’s not going to happen. You know, in the same way, and I’ll give you a tough time about the Cavs later, Hugh, but look, you know, I’d love to be in the NBA. I’m not going to get there. I’d love it if we could do complete repeal. With 52 members in the United States Senate, that’s just not going to happen. And by the way, not all 52 want complete repeal. So this is a very challenging situation. With Susan Collins, you know, my guess is that she is trying to protect a political future, maybe, in Maine. I’m not sure what the factor is there, and I don’t want to attribute any other motive to it. But the point is we need to be able to get to a debate on the bill.
HH: We do need to be able to get to debate on the bill, because we’ve got to see where, you know, people like Rand Paul can offer an amendment to repeal it completely, right?
LC: Yeah, well, that’s exactly right. I mean, we’d go, what’s going to happen next week, Hugh, is if we get the votes, if Senator McConnell is able to get the votes on the motion to proceed, which is a basic procedural motion that says yes, I want to have debate on the bill, then we’re going to go into an open amendment process, where any senator can offer any amendment they want. It can be as whacky or as, you know, as technical as they want, and then those amendments are going to get debated on the floor of the Senate, and we will have a fulsome discussion about what we’re going to do with the repeal and replace effort. But we can’t have that discussion if we don’t take the basic step of going to debate on the bill. So I really hope senators get there. By the way, if Mitch McConnell is able to get this motion to proceed, the chances that we get a bill all the way through the Senate increase dramatically. So this initial procedural vote is actually quite important.
HH: Now what also interests me, Lanhee, people talk about they wanted to work with Democrats. We’ve heard Senator Collins say we should have involved Democrats. Senator McCain said something last night. All right, look, you can offer an amendment to suspend proceedings for six weeks. You can change the rules of the Senate via an amendment. You can do whatever you want via an amendment. And you can say we are going to empanel a special committee of eight to see if they can come up, and we will debate both their version and this alternative version after eight weeks. They can do whatever they want if they get to a debate on the floor. That’s what is so absurd about the state…Rand Paul can also offer a complete repeal amendment, which you know, he’s not going to get a majority for, but he can offer it. I really do think political cowardice is going to leave a mark on people who vote not to debate. Do you agree with me?
LC: Yeah, I mean, I think you know, to the extent that people are concerned that voting in favor of this motion to proceed is going to hurt them politically, I would encourage them to consider the alternate universe. If they vote against this motion to proceed, how is that going to affect them politically? I think you’re right. There is a point to be made that for seven years, certainly Republican voters, and many independent voters, have sent Republicans to Washington, because they expect them to do something about this law. And if they can’t, that is going to pose significant political issues. By the way, this idea that Republicans can work with Democrats, if you vote on the motion to proceed and you say yes, I want to proceed, you can test that theory next week. You could test that theory with something that you think is going to get Democratic support. I’m pretty sure, Hugh, even the most reasonable, the most moderate proposals are not going to get any Democratic support, because they’ve made it very clear they’re not going to support anything in this effort.
LC: But you could test the theory.
HH: You could test the theory, but not unless you go to the motion to proceed.
HH: So in one word, if they vote against this motion to proceed, how is it going to affect them politically, or one or two words?
LC: I think it will have very negative consequences, three words, very negative consequences.
HH: And how long, you know, a lot of senators count on memory, right? They count on there being a period of time that comes along where people, you know, they get absorbed in events, etc. I don’t think this rubs off. I really think it’s one of those rare moments like the bailout bill where people are explaining it 15, 16 years later. And maybe you can successfully explain it, but I don’t think these senators, not this close, they’re not going to be able to explain a no vote on the motion to proceed.
LC: Yeah, I agree with that completely. This is one of those litmus test votes. I mean, this is one of those things where you’re going to get asked, you had the opportunity to vote to move the process forward to repeal and replace Obamacare. Did you do it? And if you didn’t, I think it’s going to be a big problem. And I don’t think it’s going to go away. This is not like a simple vote. I mean, there are a handful of votes, Hugh, and you know this. You’ve mentioned this over the years, whether it was on TARP, which was the bailout, or whether I think some of the votes on Defense, on the National Defense Authorization Act, whether you believe in a strong and robust American military, those votes don’t go away, either. I don’t think this one goes away that easily, either.
HH: Now consequences for the House if this falls apart, I do believe there’s only one way to lose the House. You’ve got to have an energized Democratic base, which I believe is evident, and you have to have a demoralized Republican base, or the reverse, which is why we had waves in 2010 and 2014 and 2016. D’s were demoralized, R’s are energized. If they don’t get out of this Senate, if they don’t even debate it, that is the condition precedent that you need for a wave election. Agree or disagree?
LC: Yeah, I agree. I think it puts our House members in significant jeopardy. By the way, this is why Paul Ryan pushed so hard to get things across the finish line on the House side. And through a lot of work, through a lot of negotiation, and through a lot of sweat, they were able to get a bill passed the House. And that’s why it was so important for them to do so. The problem is this is largely out of their control now, because if the process dies in the Senate, it’s not like the House can go and somehow jumpstart things. I mean, this is, there’s got to be agreement between Republicans, House and Senate, about what to do here. So we’re jeopardizing not just individual senators in 2018 in their elections, but also potentially our majority in the House.
HH: You know, it just seems so obvious to me that that is just absolutely, positively true. So let’s do some predictions, Lanhee. Does Senator McConnell get the votes to proceed?
LC: I think he will. I think he will, because it is too inconceivable to me that we are going to have, you know, even three, and that’s really all it would take, three Republican senators saying you know, I don’t even want to talk about repeal and replacement of Obamacare. I’m just not interested. I think it’s going to be close, but even those members that are wobbly on this, you know, if you look at Dean Heller in Nevada, or you look at you know, others that have expressed concern, Rob Portman in Ohio, they’ve all left themselves the opportunity, the wiggle room, to proceed on the bill. So I tend to think that Mitch McConnell is going to be able to do this. Now whether in fact it happens on Tuesday as they plan or later, I don’t know. But my sense is that he’s going to get there.
HH: Well, it just, I agree with you, because I believe, for example, Dean Heller loses his job if he votes not to proceed. The fellow who might concern me is John McCain. He loses his chairmanship, because the Senate is lost in four years. He wants to have four years of rebuild. Everybody loses, except Susan Collins, who thinks she’s going to be governor. And I like Susan Collins. I think she’s a very nice person. She’s making a fundamental miscalculation. All the Republicans who voted for LePage are not going to support her. And so I don’t know, are you going to talk to them this weekend? Are senators talking to you about, you know, the policy? We can’t talk about the policy until we get past the motion to proceed, and then you can talk about the policy. Are they talking to you?
LC: Yeah, I mean, look, you know, there are a number of us that continue to offer, you know, informal advice and counsel to the extent that we’re asked for it. But I do think you’re right. First of all, the policy discussion’s going to come next week. But second of all, I do think that if you look at this bill, there is something in there for every element of the conservative movement. If you believe in tax reductions, tax reform, that’s in there. If you believe in reform of entitlements, that’s in there. If you believe in helping people at the low end get access to quality health insurance, that’s there. If you want to bend the cost curve, that’s there, too. So I think there’s everything there that needs to be. I hope these guys will go to debate on it next week.
HH: Lanhee Chen, always good to talk to you. Follow him on Twitter, @LanheeChen. Stay tuned, America.
End of interview.