Many of us tuned in to watch yesterday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with former FBI Director James Comey’s sworn testimony, but around the same time, there were a few fireworks in a lower-profile hearing in the same building.
HHS Secretary Tom Price testified yesterday before the Senate Finance Committee on his department’s budget, and not surprisingly, there was a fair amount of discussion of the Republican plans on health care policy. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) asked the committee’s chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), whether the panel would hold any hearings on the GOP’s proposal.
The Utah Republican, apparently unsure how to respond, had an aide whisper a talking point in his ear. Hatch eventually told McCaskill that he doesn’t know if the committee would hold a hearing on the still-secret legislation, but Democrats had been invited to “give your ideas” about the issue.
McCaskill wasn’t having it.
“No, that’s not true, Mr. Chairman. Let me just say, I watched carefully all of the hearings that went on [when the Affordable Care Act was crafted]. I was not a member of this committee at the time, although I would have liked to be. [Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa] was the ranking member. Dozens of Republican amendments were offered and accepted in that hearing process.
“And when you say that you’re inviting us – and we heard you, Mr. Secretary, just say, ‘We’d love your support’ – for what? We don’t even know. We have no idea what’s being proposed. There’s a group of guys in a back room somewhere that are making these decisions. There were no hearings in the House.
“I mean, listen, this is hard to take. Because I know we made mistakes [when the ACA came together], Mr. Secretary. And one of the criticisms we got over and over again that the vote was partisan. Well you couldn’t have a more partisan exercise than what you’re engaged in right now. We’re not even going to have a hearing on a bill that impacts one-sixth of our economy. We’re not going to have an opportunity to offer a single amendment. It is all being done with an eye to try to get it by with 50 votes and the vice president.
“I am stunned that that’s what [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] would call regular order, which he sanctimoniously said would be the order of the day when the Republicans took the Senate over. We are now so far from regular order that the newer members don’t even know what it looks like.”
The Missouri Democrat pleaded with Hatch to be given the same opportunities Republicans had during the process in which the ACA was written.
The clip of McCaskill’s unscripted comments started making the rounds rather quickly, and for good reason. As The New Republic’s Brian Beutler noted, “Like Obamacare or not, decent people should be furious about this. Not a word of what Claire McCaskill says here is hyperbolic or inaccurate. The reason Senator Orrin Hatch is acting like he’s been caught here is because he has. What Republicans are attempting to do to the health care system is the legislative equivalent of a mugging.”
Even by the low standards of contemporary American politics, the dynamic sounds ridiculous: Congress’ majority party is prepare to overhaul the nation’s health care system, making life-or-death decisions affecting tens of millions of Americans, and senators are writing legislation in secret. No hearings, no amendments, no transparency, no input from subject-matter experts, and no effort at bipartisan negotiation.
A group of conservative men are meeting behind closed doors, crafting a plan that will be brought directly to the floor for a vote. There is no precedent for anything like this in the American tradition.
But it’s precisely what we’re watching unfold.
And while I’ve seen some health care proponents express confidence that the Senate GOP’s secret proposal is doomed to fail, I think that confidence is badly misplaced. Republicans have made considerable progress this week on a far-right plan that may have enough support to pass.