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The Republicans' ACA repeal crusade now faces a tough deadline

Congressional Republicans thought they had plenty of time to return health care. It now appears they thought wrong.
The dome of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, Mar. 19, 2014.
The dome of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, Mar. 19, 2014.

I realize phrases such as "Senate parliamentarian" and "budget reconciliation rules" don't exactly qualify as click-bait, but there was some news from Capitol Hill late last week that may end up affecting millions of Americans' lives.

At Donald Trump's insistence, congressional Republicans have spent much of the year trying to approve a regressive health care plan, which Senate Democrats haven't been able to filibuster for a specific, procedural reason: GOP lawmakers are using the budget reconciliation process, which means they can pass certain kinds of bills with simple majorities in both chambers.

When it comes to repealing the Affordable Care Act, that hasn't turned out well for Republicans, at least not yet, though the president still expects his GOP allies to return to the subject. What we learned on Friday is that Republicans will have to hurry. Politico reported:

In a potential death knell for efforts to repeal Obamacare -- at least this year -- the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that Republicans face a Sept. 30 deadline to kill or overhaul the law with only 50 votes, Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee said Friday. [...]Senate Republicans had been relying on a fast-track budget measure known as reconciliation in their effort to repeal Obamacare, which stalled weeks ago thanks to a decisive vote by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, ruled that the budget measure expires at the end of the month when fiscal 2017 ends, meaning any repeal effort beyond that date would need 60 votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster.

An Associated Press report noted that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee and "took the lead in the arcane arguments before the parliamentarian, who acts as the Senate's nonpartisan referee."

So, in practical terms, what does this mean? Republicans thought they could return to their health care crusade at some point in the near future, but they suddenly have far less time than they thought. Given the September to-do list on Capitol Hill, even the fiercest GOP health care critics may struggle to find time to take another bite at this apple.

But there's an under-appreciated angle to this that some of the media reports overlooked.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) is currently facing corruption allegations in federal court, and some of the political world has been keeping an eye on the legal proceedings, not just because a sitting senator is on trial, but because it could have a major impact on health care: if Menendez were forced from the Senate, and Gov. Chris Christie (R) were to name his replacement, Republican Senate leaders may have the one additional vote they need to start gutting health care benefits.

The findings of the Senate parliamentarian matter here, too. It's unclear how quickly Menendez's trial will unfold, but the calendar is starting to shrink and the Sept. 30 deadline isn't far away. Every day the New Jersey Democrat's case continues means one less opportunity for GOP lawmakers to gut "Obamacare."