Lawmakers return to Washington with big list of priorities

WASHINGTON — A mountain of legislative priorities and mounting pressure to raise the debt ceiling will face Congress when it returns Monday for a month of work before summer recess.

The “to do” list for lawmakers is so great that some House conservatives have called on leadership to cancel the time-worn practice of letting members return to their home districts for the monthlong August break, when heat and humidity rise to uncomfortable levels in the nation’s capital.

At the forefront of the agenda is the beleaguered Senate health care bill, which is still being written in an attempt to build consensus among Republicans.

Senate Republicans threw up their hands and left before the July 4 holiday after GOP support failed to materialize, prompting leaders to pull their health care reform bill from consideration to avoid an embarrassing loss.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., was one of nearly a dozen holdout senators who vocally opposed the bill. His concern was provisions in the legislation that cut nearly $800 billion from Medicaid and eliminated expansion of the program.

Those cuts, and the rollback of the expansion, would leave nearly 300,000 Nevadans without coverage. Heller remained in touch over the break with Senate leaders, who are trying to rewrite a bill to win support of lawmakers whose states expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

Heller spent the past week in Nevada, but he has continued to talk with colleagues, and his staff has been engaged in proposed changes that the senator and other Republicans from Medicaid-expansion states want.

Democrats are united in opposition to repeal of the ACA, commonly known as Obamacare. They seek to fix Obamacare flaws but keep the program framework intact.

“While the law is not perfect, we can come together to fix what doesn’t work,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev.

Meanwhile, Republicans continue to bail out on the GOP plan to repeal and replace the ACA.

Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas was another Republican who came out in opposition to the bill following a week of meeting with constituents and attending town hall meetings.

McConnell’s warning

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said inaction is not an option and warned that if the Senate does not repeal and replace the ACA, it would need to provide financial help immediately to shore up the private health insurance market.

Two insurance companies have announced they plan to pull out of rural Nevada counties.

With a continuing erosion of support for the Senate bill, an expected vote on the legislation has been pushed back to mid-July.

In an attempt to find support, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, revealed a plan that would allow insurance companies to offer less costly plans as long as they provide one that includes benefits and coverages that were mandated under the ACA.

His bill is designed to bring around conservative GOP senators who oppose the current bill because it leaves too many of the Obamacare mandates and taxes in place.

Another measure is being introduced by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. That bill would allow credit unions or business associations to offer health care plans. It would allow associations to pool members and create leverage for lowering costs on medical services and prescription drugs, much like company-sponsored plans.

Those measures could find support from conservatives like Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Pa., who have bailed on the initial Senate plan.

Still, moderate Republicans remain concerned about Medicaid cuts, defunding of Planned Parenthood and the insurance costs and coverages under the Senate bill.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, are worried about access, coverage and cost for rural populations in two geographically large states.

McConnell can afford to lose only two of his 52-member GOP caucus to pass the bill, leaving little room to manuever and making it difficult to bridge the gap between conservatives and moderates in his party.

Other pressing issues

Disarray over the health care legislation also clouds the prospects that the Senate can tackle other pressing and priority items on its plate.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has asked the House and Senate to raise the debt ceiling this summer, a move that would help thwart a hard deadline in the early fall that could raise the specter of a government shutdown.

Republicans were splintered when the debt ceiling was raised during the Obama administrations, and Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer have warned that there would not be support for raising the ceiling if Republicans separately seek tax cuts.

A Congressional Budget Office projects that the Treasury will likely run out of cash in early to mid-October, leading to delays of payments for the government’s programs and activities, a default on its debt obligations, or both.

The House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative Republican lawmakers, is pushing leaders to include budget caps and spending cuts in a debt ceiling bill.

That would run counter to President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, which seeks hefty increases in spending for the military and for construction of a wall along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

The Trump administration and Republican leaders have put out mixed signals on the debt ceiling lift.

Mnuchin has asked leaders in both chambers to pass a “clean” bill, while Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the second-highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, said he would like to see budget caps included in the legislation.

Meanwhile, Trump has asked Congress to expedite action on his tax-cut plan, a staple of his campaign promises favored by his conservative base.

Contact Gary Martin at 202-662-7390 or Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

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