Sens. Steve Daines and Mitch McConnell are pictured. | Getty

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), pictured with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), likened it to a “motion to proceed” to conference rather than concrete policy.

Updated, 5:45 p.m.: Three Republican senators said they will block the GOP’s “skinny” Obamacare repeal bill without an ironclad guarantee from House Speaker Paul Ryan that the bill will go to conference committee and not simply be passed by the House and sent to President Donald Trump.

Some House members have suggested the plan could be quickly approved by the House after the Senate passes it. “I need a guarantee,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who was joined by John McCain of Arizona and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

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Original story:

Mitch McConnell is making one last frantic plea to his Senate Republican members to advance the party’s scaled-back Obamacare repeal, assuring them at a private lunch that the vote is merely aimed at getting to conference with the House rather than immediately becoming law.
The Senate majority leader picked up some key votes at lunch, with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) endorsing the shriveling repeal effort as a bridge to bicameral negotiations. Not everyone was sold, but GOP leaders were emphasizing that the bill, which would slash Obamacare’s coverage mandates and result in millions more uninsured, is not the ultimate goal.

“I believe the leader has been in communication with Speaker [Paul] Ryan on that topic,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “The request to go to conference has to come from the House so that would probably be the best people to talk to. But I have every expectation we will.”

Still, rank-and-file GOP senators struggled to explain whether there is any guarantee that the bill they are set to vote on would not actually become law. There is real concern among wavering Senate Republicans that the House was adopting a “martial law” procedure that would allow them to quickly take up and pass the health care bill.

The House Rules Committee adopted a “martial law” procedure that extends through Tuesday. Republicans on the panel defeated a Democratic attempt to limit fast-track motions to go to conference.

The House is set to begin its August recess Friday, but House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy sent a note to lawmakers Thursday instructing them to keep their schedules flexible for the next few days in case the Senate passes Obamacare repeal legislation and the House decides to act on it.

“Just the term martial law worries me,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). Of the thought that the House could just pass the Senate’s latest repeal plan, “That would concern me.”

Earlier, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) likened the Senate bill to a “motion to proceed” to conference rather than concrete policy, though Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said “theoretically there’s no way” to get a concrete assurance that the House won’t just pass the bill and send it to the president.

“We want assurances of that. And I think they will get them. I know Mitch is planning to give that and I think people will support whatever it is that can keep our efforts alive,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

Other Senate Republicans were upset that the House could just adopt the “skinny” repeal package and declare victory.

“How can the House say, ‘We’ll just pass it.’ Pass what?,” asked Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who has opposed both the House and Senate GOP bills. “I think it signals they don’t like very much what they passed.”

McConnell was short of the votes as of Thursday afternoon, although it was clear he and Cornyn were picking up support as the day wore on.

Republicans must get 50 of their 52 members on board; Vice President Mike Pence would break a 50-50 tie to pass the bill.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who indicated earlier support for the effort because it skirts the issue of Medicaid, was noncommittal on Thursday afternoon after Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval savaged the bill. So were Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) — who served cheeseburgers, french fries, onion rings and fry sauce from Hires Big H in Sandy, Utah during the GOP lunch — wants a “fatter repeal” than has been presented, a spokesman said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was “certainly not” a yes and needed to talk to his governor.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he would vote against it unless he is assured that the parliamentarian will allow his proposal to block grant federal health care money to the states and keep Obamacare’s taxes.

Graham and other senators said they are wary of voting for a proposal that is not good policy and is being sold as a bridge to conference.

“I cannot tolerate our skinny bill being the final answer on health care. … No way. If you passed it as a standalone proposition it would destroy the insurance markets and we would own the failure of Obamacare,” Graham said. “I’m a no” if it’s not allowed in conference.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Portman said they would vote “yes.” Portman’s governor, Republican John Kasich, also urged against voting for the bill on Wednesday, though Portman said he would vote for the bill only if it leads to negotiations with House Republicans.

But Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), a top health care legislator, said “All options are on the table.”

The bill itself was evolving rapidly, as Senate Republicans’ once ambitious Obamacare repeal effort kept narrowing, with growing doubts over whether the GOP can fully eliminate the health law’s coverage mandates or any of its taxes.

The GOP’s “skinny” repeal bill, in other words, was getting even skinnier.

“I don’t know whether at the end of this process it’s going to be fat, skinny, bulimic, anorexic, I don’t know. This is not being orchestrated, I can assure you,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.).

Sources on and off Capitol Hill on Thursday described a blueprint that would repeal the law’s individual mandate and partially delay its employer mandate. It also would defund Planned Parenthood and give states more flexibility to opt out of Obamacare regulations; the law’s Prevention and Public Fund is also expected to be sharply cut. But there are growing concerns among Republicans that budget requirements will prevent the Senate from repealing any of Obamacare’s taxes.

Senate Republicans are also considering language to allow people to buy insurance with pre-tax money, favored by conservatives. Leaders have not been decided if it will be included.

McConnell emailed GOP senators on Thursday outlining the current provisions in the bill; the message noted that the employer mandate would be repealed for a minimum of six years, according to a source who viewed the email. Another GOP source said the employer mandate would be halted for eight years.

And it’s unclear whether there will be a complete CBO score of the Republican plan in time for the vote. Republicans say if there isn’t, they would rely on prior CBO scores of provisions of the bill and Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi would make a ruling.

Not everyone said they were familiar with the bill.

“I don’t know what it looks like,” Murkowski said.

Even as the chamber careens toward a final decision on whether to repeal, replace or revise Obamacare, with no certain outcome, Republican leaders are desperate to get rid of their political headache after several failed votes earlier this week.

“We have to pass something,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the most senior GOP senator and chairman of the Finance Committee.

The Senate will begin a series of votes later Thursday afternoon designed to test what senators will support for an Obamacare replacement bill, dubbed a “vote-a-rama.” This will help determine whether Republicans can reach a consensus among themselves. The session could last until Friday morning, depending on GOP and Democratic maneuvers, and culminates in a final passage vote.

A GOP effort to see whether Democrats support a single-payer health care system garnered zero “yes” votes. Most Democrats voted “present,” though some moderates, all up for reelection in 2018, voted against it.

McConnell is expected at some point to unveil the GOP’s highly anticipated “skinny repeal” bill — the narrowest effort to dismantle Obamacare that can win at least 50 votes.

“We all know this is likely to be a long night. It’s part of a long process that has taken a lot of hard work from a lot of dedicated colleagues already,” McConnell said on the floor Thursday.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he’s been assured by senators in both parties that if the bill fails, the Senate will start over in committee. But Republicans want to get the issue off their plate and are seeking a bridge to negotiations with the House, not necessarily a final policy solution.

They want to pass something — anything — and hope they can forge a broader deal in conference committee with the House and White House, even if it could reopen painful party divisions on proposed cuts to Medicaid spending and efforts to slash Obamacare regulations.

McConnell and his top lieutenants started from a bare-bones plan that would repeal Obamacare’s individual and employer coverage mandate, as well as the medical device tax. There are now major questions about whether those three things can pass Senate rules.

Republicans are seeking to repeal as many of Obamacare’s taxes as they can, but doing so would blow holes in the budget. Some sources doubted Republicans would even be able to repeal the medical device tax.

Some GOP senators were pushing for billions of dollars in new funding for fighting opioid addiction to be included in leadership’s package, part of an effort to restore the $45 billion in such funding already promised by McConnell in previous bills. But that has been ruled out as spending too much money to hit budget targets; the Senate must hit at least $133 billion in savings, as required under Senate rules, GOP sources said.

The parliamentarian has found that language allowing states to undo some of Obamacare’s consumer protections might not be allowed under reconciliation rules, according to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the ranking member on the Budget Committee.

“We’re trying to come up with a package that does the things that we want and I think principally those are going to be the mandates,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican. Asked if that would include tax cuts he said: “At the moment, it doesn’t look like it.”

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