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Secret health care bill roils Senate Republicans

Many Senate Republicans are willing to admit their party shouldn't be pushing a secret health care bill. They're just not doing anything about it.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks to media outside his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 22, 2016. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks to media outside his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 22, 2016.

When a reporter noted the other day that Senate Republicans are pushing a health care bill amid a level of secrecy "not seen since before World War I," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) dismissed the observation as "crazy talk." In this case, the GOP gambit may be "crazy," but the charge is true.

Don Ritchie, the official historian emeritus of the U.S. Senate, told the L.A. Times last week that during the Wilson administration, Senate Democrats crafted major tariff reforms in secret, but such an approach to federal legislating "hasn't happened since." The report on the GOP's health care scheme, citing Ritchie's analysis, added, "[N]ot since the years before World War I has the Senate taken such a partisan, closed-door approach to major legislation."

The truth may make Cornyn uncomfortable, but that doesn't make it wrong.

The same article had this striking quote from a key Republican senator:

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said holding public hearings about the legislation would only give Democrats more opportunity to attack the bill."We have zero cooperation from the Democrats," he said. "So getting it in public gives them a chance to get up and scream."

It's a fascinating, albeit bizarre, perspective. To hear Orrin Hatch tell it, there's nothing especially problematic with Republicans tackling a health care overhaul -- life-or-death legislation, affecting one-sixth of the world's largest economy -- in total secrecy, because if there was transparency, some might criticize the legislation.

In fairness, several GOP senators have publicly criticized their own party's process. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who appeared on multiple Sunday shows yesterday, conceded that the Republicans' approach isn't ideal. "The Senate is not a place where you can cook up something behind closed doors," he said on CBS.

There's a lot of this going around. Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), and others have publicly acknowledged that there are real problems with the way in which their party is trying to pass a secret health care bill.

But no one should be too impressed with their candor.

The sentiment is welcome, to be sure, but it's within these senators' power to make this a transparent process, and they're choosing to do nothing. The Washington Post's Greg Sargent had a good piece on this the other day:

But here’s the rub: If these senators really wanted to improve this process, they could be doing more to make that happen than they actually appear to be, and it’s within the realm of the plausible that they would succeed, at least to some degree.The most forceful and obvious way they could do this is to go to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and insist on it. If a handful of GOP senators said they can’t vote for the bill under these conditions, McConnell might have to relent, because he can afford to lose only a few.

Exactly. In a 52-48 Senate, three Republican senators -- any three Republican senators -- carry enormous weight. The moment a GOP trio tells Mitch McConnell, "Either pursue health care in a legitimate way or we won't vote for it" is the moment the current Republican secrecy scheme ends. It's as simple as that.

So, sure, it's a good thing when GOP senators acknowledge reality and raise public concerns about the indefensible partisan gambit underway, but until these Senate Republicans are prepared to back up their concerns with action, the rhetoric is ultimately hollow and meaningless.

This is a secret bill because the majority either wants it to be this way or is willing to tolerate the scandalous lack of transparency.