McConnell charts plan for moving on new health bill

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WASHINGTON — Republicans will introduce their reworked health care bill Thursday and begin trying to muscle it through the Senate next week, the chamber's GOP leader said Tuesday as the party tried healing divisions threatening to mortally wound the chances for one of its top goals.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also said he would delay the chamber's August recess for two weeks, a rare move he said would give lawmakers time to break logjams on health care, defense and executive branch nominations. Growing numbers of Republicans, chagrined at Congress' failure to send any major bills to President Donald Trump, had called on McConnell to make that move.

"We'll be on health care next week," McConnell told reporters, even as the prospects for his divided party's drive to repeal much of President Barack Obama's health care law seemed gloomy as ever.

Earlier, long time Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he was "very pessimistic" that the health care measure will be approved. And one maverick Republican, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, warned leaders about retaliation by conservative voters should they react to a collapse of the measure by striking a deal with Democrats.

In the face of unanimous Democratic opposition, the health care bill will crash if just three of the 52 GOP senators oppose it. McConnell suddenly canceled a doomed vote last month on an initial version of the legislation, and at least a dozen Republicans have said they oppose the initial package or distanced themselves from it.

The GOP bill would ease coverage requirements Obama's 2010 statute placed on insurers, like paying for maternity services; erase his tax penalties on people who don't buy policies; cut Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, disabled and nursing home patients; and repeal most tax boosts that law levied on wealthier people and medical firms.

Since his June retreat, McConnell has been reshaping the measure in hopes of winning GOP votes.

Underscoring continued uncertainty, No. 3 Senate GOP leader John Thune of South Dakota would not make predictions about the health care vote but said, "I think we have narrowed it down to where we know where the decision points are."

A study by two bipartisan groups estimated that the country's poorest families would lose more than $2,500 in average annual health care benefits once the legislation was fully phased in, illustrating the political challenge the GOP bill poses. Families making more than $1 million a year would get tax cuts averaging about $50,000, according to the analysis by the Health Policy Center and the Tax Policy Center.

Thune said "the direction" of the new measure included retaining Obama's tax boost on investment income by higher earners. That would provide extra money to increase the bill's subsidies for people buying insurance, and help counter Democratic charges that the measure cuts programs for the poor to bestow tax cuts on the rich.

The revised bill is also expected to ease some of its earlier Medicaid cuts and beef up federal payments states could use to help insurers contain consumers' out-of-pocket costs.

Still at issue is a plan by conservatives led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to let insurers sell low-price policies with bare-bones coverage — if the company also sells a policy covering a list of services like maternity care that Obama's law mandates.

It has received strong pushback from GOP moderates warning it would inflate premiums for sicker people buying generous plans because younger, healthier customers would flock to skimpier policies. To ease the price boosts people with serious illnesses might face, some Republicans said changes were being discussed that would link the premiums insurers would charge for both types of coverage.

Cruz told reporters that Republicans were continuing talks about the best way to restrain premiums. He said the GOP effort to find common ground on the bill "remains challenging."

Some conservatives may hinge their support for the legislation on whether it contains Cruz's plan, or something like it. Cruz called lowering premiums "the single most important deliverable we can provide for the men and women who elected us."

McConnell has said if the GOP health care drive fails, he'd pursue a narrower measure aimed at propping up insurance markets. That effort would likely require talks with Democrats.

"I think that's the wrong strategy," Paul said on the Fox News Channel about the possibility of a bipartisan deal on a smaller scale bill. "And I think Republicans will be very unhappy across the land if the Republican leadership gives up and goes and works with the Democrats."

Grassley also spoke on Fox News Channel.

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