WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that “nobody” is being excluded from his conference’s meetings on health care after Democrats and even some members of his own party criticized him for assembling a working group on the issue consisting of 13 men and no women.
“Well the working group that counts is all 52 of us, and we’re having extensive meetings … every day,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday, referencing the 52 Republicans in the Senate. “Nobody’s being excluded based upon gender.”
The health care working group met Tuesday and invited Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia to speak about her concerns about how the bill would affect people on Medicaid in her state. At the health care meeting of all Republican senators directly after that, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, spoke about high-risk pools.
But Democrats continued to seize on the fact that the working group itself didn’t include any of the five Republican women in the Senate, two of whom sit on a committee that oversees the health care system.
“To not have women in the smaller group that we know is making many of the real decisions is a very, very bad thing,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters, adding that the House health care bill “discriminates” against women by allowing states to let insurers opt out of maternity care and some other types of coverage. “It’s just so wrong.”
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said, “We know it makes a difference when women are in the room, and we know it makes a difference when women aren’t in the room.”
Some Republicans acknowledged it would have been better to include more women in the initial discussion. “It would have been good to have diversity from a gender perspective,” said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., on Tuesday. Scott, who is also not a member of the group, said the conference’s five female Republicans would be invited to come to the group’s meetings from then on.
The working group also locks out several of the members of the Senate who have drafted health care legislation in the past: Sens. Collins, Bill Cassidy and Rand Paul, among them. The group consists of the Senate Republican leadership, the heads of relevant committees, and Sens. Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Rob Portman.
The kerfuffle over the all-male group has been an unwelcome distraction for McConnell, who faces the daunting task of getting at least 50 of his members to agree on an overhaul of the health care system that the Republican Party would likely own for years— assuming it could be reconciled with the House bill in a form that would pass both chambers and be signed by President Trump. The GOP leader, renowned for his political skills, can only afford to lose two of his members and still pass the bill through reconciliation, a process that bypasses the 60-vote threshold to end a filibuster.
Senators agreed in the meeting not to set a deadline for their process, and the White House appears to be giving McConnell more breathing room than it gave House Speaker Paul Ryan. The White House pressured Ryan into scheduling the first vote on the health care overhaul in March, for a bill that was pulled in the face of likely defeat.
“We have a very narrow Republican majority,” said Sen. Ted Cruz. “This process is going to take some time and one of the things that we all agreed on at the outset is that we would not set any artificial deadlines, not hold out a made-up date that we had to hit.”
Some of the major sticking points going forward include how to handle the Medicaid expansion population under Obamacare; deciding if some of the law’s taxes should be retained to pay for the parts of the law the Republicans plan to keep; and how to prevent older consumers from being priced out of insurance exchanges. Senators must also decide whether to keep the provision in the House bill that would allow states to let insurers charge people with preexisting conditions more for coverage.
The House version of the health care bill cuts off Medicaid expansion funds by 2020, leaving the fate of the 11 million people who received health care via the expansion up in the air. Capito, the senator from West Virginia, told the Hill she believed Medicaid should be reformed but that the people in her state who received it under the expansion should have access to it permanently. Sen. Rob Portman told reporters he favored easing people in his state off the Medicaid expansion through tax credits or some other means.
It’s also clear that many senators want to start from scratch on health care, using the House bill only as a rough guide, which could make the final product unappealing to House conservatives. But Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., noted that the Senate bill must cut the deficit by the same estimated amount as the House bill in order to pass through reconciliation.
The entire Senate Republican conference will meet Wednesday and Thursday to hash out their many differences on the legislation. “Everybody’s at the table,” McConnell said. “Everybody.“