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WASHINGTON — In his first public comments in nearly a week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Thursday indicated that passing the GOP's health care bill remains a daunting prospect for a Republican conference so far unable to agree on key details.
"I'm in the position of a guy with a Rubik's cube, trying to twist the dial in such a way to get at least 50 members of my conference who can agree to a version of repealing and replacing" Obamacare, McConnell said at a town hall-style event in Kentucky. "That is a very timely subject that I'm grappling with as we speak."
But he also said taking no action on health care is not an option for Congress.
“If Republicans are not able to agree among themselves, the crisis will still be there and we'll have to figure out the way forward at that point," McConnell told the crowd Thursday.
McConnell has long tempered expectations on health care, understanding the difficulty of uniting his ideologically diverse conference. He postponed a vote last month after he was unable to find enough support.
McConnell also said in Kentucky that if Republicans fail, they would have to work with Democrats to find a bipartisan fix to the problems in the Affordable Care Act's individual market where insurers are no longer offering insurance plans in some rural areas.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that Democrats are willing to work with Republicans on finding solutions to improving Obamacare.
“It’s encouraging that Sen. McConnell today acknowledged that the issues with the exchanges are fixable, and opened the door to bipartisan solutions to improve our health care system," Schumer said in a statement. "As we’ve said time and time again, Democrats are eager to work with Republicans to stabilize the markets and improve the law. At the top of the list should be ensuring cost sharing payments are permanent, which will protect health care for millions.”
But McConnell has used potential negotiations with Democrats as a motivating factor to come to agreement with each other.
"Either Republicans will agree to change the status quo or markets will continue to collapse and when I have to sit down with Sen. Schumer any negotiation with Democrats will include none of the reforms that we would like to make both on the market side and the Medicaid side," McConnell told reporters last Tuesday.
While the Senate returns on Monday, a vote on the Senate health care bill is not expected to take place until the week of July 17.
McConnell has made changes to the bill, including adding a $45 billion fund to help pay for opioid treatment. The Senate expects to get an analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office back either in the middle or at the end of next week, crowding out time for a vote. The first CBO score estimated that the bill would cause 22 million people would lose health insurance, but would save the government $300 million.
Republicans sent the CBO two separate bills last week: one with an amendment by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and one without the Cruz amendment. Cruz's plan allows a non-compliant health care plan — essentially a catastrophic plan — to be offered alongside a robust Obamacare plan that includes minimum coverage requirements. The idea is to offer people a cost-effective insurance option. The fear, however, is that only sicker people would purchase the comprehensive plan, raising the cost for the government and for sick consumers.
With no Democratic support for any bill that would repeal key Obamacare measures, Republican leaders need the support of at least 50 of the 52 GOP senators to pass a bill.
Republicans, however, are facing a tight timeline. There are only three weeks between when they return on Monday and when they adjourn for their five-week long august recess. While there have been calls by some rank and file members to stay in longer should it be necessary, no Republican leader has agreed to or announced such an action.