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Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley On His More Than 100 Amendments To GOP Health Care Bill


Up to now, Democrats in Congress have had one role in the debate over repealing the Affordable Care Act. Democrats vote no again and again, which forces Republicans to come up with all the votes for their own unpopular alternatives, which Republicans have twice failed to do in the Senate. Another alternative faces a vote today, although Democrats do have a chance to offer amendments. And Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley says he is offering more than 100 motions and amendments. Is that right, Senator?

JEFF MERKLEY: That's absolutely right, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. Good morning. Thanks for coming...

MERKLEY: Good morning.

INSKEEP: ...By our studios. Sadly, we don't have time for you to read the text of all the...

MERKLEY: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...Provisions. But you posted some online. You want to strike provisions that raise the premiums for pregnant women. You want to strike provisions that eliminate Medicaid for people with breast cancer. What are you driving at with amendments like this?

MERKLEY: All of these amendments make the point that real people will be deeply damaged if we destroy the health care marketplace. And that's exactly what the Republicans are doing.

INSKEEP: Which, just to be clear, these are messaging amendments - you're trying to put Republicans in a bad light here.

MERKLEY: Well, we're trying to make sure that - yes. Yes (laughter). What it boils down to is, we want people to understand the gravity. This is no ordinary bill. This touches lives. People will not get health care because of this. The CBO estimates that even if the skinny bill, that we anticipate seeing later today from Mitch McConnell, is adopted, that next year 16 million fewer Americans will have health insurance, which not only affects those people but it also affects the financial viability of our clinics and hospitals that serve everyone.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned this skinny bill 'cause we can now talk about that. It's not a weight loss program; it's a provision of repealing a portion of Obamacare. And in a way, this is a messaging bit of legislation because it would eliminate the unpopular parts of the Affordable Care Act, like the individual mandate to buy insurance or a business mandate, some other things. Are you comfortable going on record voting no to that, eliminating the unpopular parts of Obamacare?

MERKLEY: Oh, absolutely. What this will involve is getting rid of both the individual mandate and the employer mandate. That destroys the viability of an insurance market. You always have to have a pool that includes everyone. Otherwise, you create a death spiral, so you can think this is the death spiral strategy by the Republicans. And it also, we understand, is going to eliminate the funding for preventive care.

INSKEEP: Now with that said, if Republicans manage to pass some version of this legislation - any version of this legislation - they can send it over to the House. House and Senate negotiators can work out something. Do you think that Republicans have the votes or are close to having the votes to pass the skinny repeal?

MERKLEY: Well, in the Senate, Mitch McConnell sounding very confident that he does have those 50 votes. And apparently, that's because he's found a way to also include a ban on funding for Planned Parenthood.

INSKEEP: Oh, which means that some Republican senators who feel passionate about abortion would feel obliged to vote for this.

MERKLEY: Yes. And we don't know what would happen to it when it leaves the Senate. Some Republican senators are saying they want to make sure they vote for this only if it goes directly to the House and is voted up and down. Others are saying they want to vote for it only if it goes to conference, so there still may be some trouble in paradise about the path ahead. But hopefully, we will find various ways to cause additional trouble because this is going to hurt so many people. We need to fight this as if our lives depend on it because the lives of many Americans depend on it.

INSKEEP: What's one option you have if Republicans get 50 votes today?

MERKLEY: Well, at that point, it's going to be out of our hands if they get 50 votes on sending the bill out of the Senate. It's going to be out of our hands, but it won't be out of the hands of the people of America, who hopefully will fill our email boxes and overflow our phones and flow into the streets and basically make it clear that this is absolutely unacceptable. That - so hopefully, it will disrupt the conversation either in conference or in the vote in the House.

INSKEEP: Senator Merkley, thanks for coming by again. Appreciate it.

MERKLEY: Oh, you're very welcome. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Jeff Merkley of Oregon in our studios this morning - and NPR's political editor, Ron Elving, has been listening in. Ron, what did you hear there that was of note?

RON ELVING, BYLINE: It's interesting that the Democrats, at this point, have not entirely focused on the issue of Medicaid. The Republicans are saying that they can work that out in a conference between the Senate and the House. But Medicaid expansion is how Obamacare got most of the coverage out to new people, and it is where the loss of Obamacare would probably push the most people off of their health care.

INSKEEP: And it's the thing that's made a lot of Republicans the most uneasy, I would think.

ELVING: Yes. And one would think that the Democrats would want to put a lot of focus on that, a lot of spotlight on that, in the hours ahead tonight and tomorrow. We shall see if their amendments to that.

INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving this morning. Ron, thanks very much.

ELVING: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.