The strategy marks a pivot for the Democrats, as party leaders have throughout the year discouraged members from offering improvements to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), fearing they would highlight problems with the law and divert attention from the Republicans’ months-long struggle to repeal and replace it.
But rank-and-file Democrats are getting restless, with some saying they can no longer tell constituents they oppose the Republicans’ repeal bills without offering solutions of their own.
“When I go back to the district, they want to know what you’re going to do,” said Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.).
“Resisting is no longer just enough, they want to see what your plan is.”
Following the early-morning failure of the Senate Republicans’ ObamaCare repeal bill on Friday, the Democrats –– leaders and rank-and-file members alike –– ramped up the pressure on GOP leaders to reach across the aisle and work on bipartisan ACA fixes.
“We can go right to the committees and have a discussion on how we keep America healthy,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters in the Capitol.
The bipartisan approach has been floated by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), but House GOP leaders don’t appear ready to move beyond their repeal effort. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Friday urged Senate Republicans not to abandon the fight.
“I am disappointed and frustrated, but we should not give up,” Ryan said in a statement. “I encourage the Senate to continue working toward a real solution that keeps our promise.”
The entrenched position of Ryan and House Republicans presents a strategic dilemma for Democratic leaders, who have said they’ll come to the table with specific ACA fixes only if the Republicans discard their insistence on repeal.
Pelosi and other top Democrats have hailed a series of ACA reforms recently proposed by a small group of centrist New Democrats and conservative-leaning Blue Dogs, but they’ve stopped short of endorsing the package, hoping to keep the pressure on Republicans and highlight the GOP’s struggles as the 2018 elections grow closer.
“We have stood ready with ideas and thoughts about how we can mend or improve the Affordable Care Act,” Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Friday. “So it is really incumbent upon them to come join us and bring us to the table.”
But a growing chorus of Democrats say it’s time to take a more proactive approach and unite behind specific proposals.
“I think the time is now,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). “People are ready to hear about how much is working in the ACA … [and also] to say how we could fix it.”
On Thursday, Larson banded with Reps. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) and Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) to introduce legislation that would allow people aged 50-64 to buy-in to Medicare –– a proposal designed to help a group that’s been hit disproportionately by rising out-of-pocket costs under the ACA.
And the legislative dam appears ready to break.
The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is poised to introduce a series of ACA reforms as early as Friday, according to Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.).
And leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) met this week to lay the groundwork for their own package of ACA fixes. They’re reaching out to the New Democrats in search of places the groups share common ground, said CPC Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.).
“Yeah, it is time,” Grijalva said.
Adding to the pressure, almost 90 Democrats endorsed four specific reforms –– based on the proposals from the New Democrats and Blue Dogs –– designed to prop up ObamaCare’s struggling individual markets. The lawmakers penned a letter to Ryan on Tuesday urging the Speaker to take them up, but the message was also intended for their own leaders.
“A lot of us are pushing our leadership to say, ‘Hey look, let’s sit down and address this,’” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who helped spearhead the letter with Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.).
Pelosi was ”supportive” of the letter, Welch said, “but she wasn’t encouraging us and I think it surprised her, frankly, that there were so many Democrats who put their name on [it].”
“You’re seeing a tremendous amount of urgency among rank-and-file members to make concrete progress and get out of this blame game,” Welch said. “And a lot of us are willing to put aside what our long-term goal is to try to achieve some short-term progress.”
Toward that end, roughly 40 House members from both parties have gathered behind closed doors in recent weeks in search of agreement on ACA reforms, particularly those focused on the individual markets. The meetings were organized by the so-called Solutions Caucus, led by Reps. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) and Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.).
“Unless we’re talking together, concretely, about improvements we’re not going to get anywhere,” said Welch, who attended the meetings.
McConnell has given fuel to the bipartisan approach. Moments after Friday’s shocking Senate vote, the Senate majority leader took to the floor and suggested Republicans have little choice but to work with Democrats in search of bipartisan healthcare solutions.
“Now I think it’s appropriate to ask, what are their ideas?” he said.
Rep Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the whip of the New Democrats, said the group was inspired to act by similar comments McConnell made earlier in the month.
“That’s the signal for Democrats in both the House and the Senate to be prepared to respond substantively,” Connolly said. “If McConnell had said what Paul Ryan had said, I don’t think you would have seen this profusion of ideas.”
The Democratic reformers were quick to praise Democratic leaders for discouraging early ACA-related proposals and keeping the party focused in opposition to the Republicans’ repeal plans –– a strategy they say highlighted the practical effects of the GOP bills, particularly the erosion of coverage.
“Tactically, I think that was the right maneuver,” Larson said.
But six months into the GOP’s repeal effort, they’re hoping to move on to a more productive phase that includes Democratic ideas for shoring up ObamaCare.
“What they were offering was unacceptable,” Schakowsky said. “Now let’s talk about how we get it right.”