GOP to unveil new health bill; part of vacation cancelled

Portman on hot seat: ‘I’m hearing from both sides,’ he says.

After pulling the GOP health care bill off the table before the July 4th recess, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday that Senate Republican leaders will unveil a new bill Thursday and also delay by two weeks the scheduled August recess.

“We’ll be on health care next week,” McConnell told reporters, even as the prospects for his divided party’s drive to repeal much of President Barack Obama’s health care law seemed gloomy as ever.

Earlier, long time Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he was “very pessimistic” that the health care measure will be approved. And one maverick Republican, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, warned leaders about retaliation by conservative voters should they react to a collapse of the measure by striking a deal with Democrats.

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Health care isn’t the only issue on the Senate’s calendar. There is the defense bill and confirmation hearings on presidential nominations. Even after the expected bruising battle over health care, the Senate will have work to do.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, is one of the senators whose actions will be closely watched.

Portman has seen protests inside his D.C. and Columbus offices, including one that spurred arrests over the July 4 recess. He’s been targeted by multiple ads from those urging him to oppose the current Senate health care bill. And this week, the CEOs of five large Medicaid providers in the state sent a letter urging Portman to remain steadfast in his opposition to the bill.

All this, for a bill that he currently opposes.

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Other groups too are pressuring Portman and several other moderate Republicans — Dean Heller of Nevada, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Just in the last 24 hours, the AARP and the Association for Community Affiliated Plans have joined the fray, with the former releasing television and radio ads urging Portman to vote no and the latter running a 30-second radio ad doing the same.

“D.C. politicians want him to choose a political deal that will put Medicaid at risk,” that ad intones, “But we want him to choose us.”

For his part, Portman opposes the current bill, announcing in June that the draft does not do enough to protect the population helped by the 2010 Medicaid expansion.

That expansion enabled 700,000 more Ohioans to receive health care coverage, and Portman argues it’s been a key tool in fighting the state’s opioid epidemic.

But in that statement, Portman also said he is committed to “continue talking with my colleagues about how we can fix the serious problems in our health care system while protecting Ohio’s most vulnerable citizens.”

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And over the July 4 recess — a time when his office, like those of other Senate Republicans from swing states, saw protesters — Portman sent out two tweets reiterating his philosophy on the bill, saying, “I’ve heard strong opinions on #healthcare. We need to act to bring back the insurance plans that have left #Ohio…and reduce costs of premiums and deductibles, but we also need to protect coverage for low income Ohioans.”

Another tweet was intended to assure Ohioans that Portman is hearing their message, even though he has so far refused to hold a town hall meeting that isn’t a tele-town hall where he talks to listeners on the telephone.

“We have 11.5M ppl in #Ohio & no shortage of differences in opinion,” he tweeted. “I appreciate hearing from all of you abt issues important to you.”

Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said the health care bill could have long-reaching ramifications even for people like Portman, who was re-elected by a large margin last November.

Some of the Democrats who voted for the 2010 Affordable Care Act — known as Obamacare — were voted out of office six years later, Kondik noted. If Republicans approve an unpopular bill, the same could happen to them, he said.

“This health care vote could be the most important or one of the most important votes of Portman’s career, assuming the bill comes to a vote,” he said.

In a conference call with Ohio reporters Tuesday, Portman insisted the input has been helpful. He said he is waiting to see the next version of the bill and how it is scored by the Congressional Budget Office.

“I’m hearing from both sides, trust me,“ he said.

Last week, 16 protesters were arrested outside his Columbus office. Portman said he is “sorry” it came to that, but they were blocking access to the building and emergency personnel were not able to respond when someone inside called 911 during the protest and complained of chest pains.

He referred other questions about the incident to the Columbus Police Department.

Portman reiterated his position that the current law is not working.

“I’m trying to do the right thing for our state.”

Alan Fram of the Associated Press contributed to this story.


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