Ron Johnson stormed Washington in 2010 by railing against Obamacare, becoming one of the law’s harshest and most persistent critics. Now, with the Senate on the brink of repealing the law, he’s one of the surprise holdouts threatening to block the bill.
The Wisconsin Republican says Senate leaders are rushing the vote before he and the public can analyze it and are not doing enough to actually bring down premiums. He joined with a trio of Senate conservatives on Thursday who say they’re open to negotiation but can’t support Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s bill as it is.
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“It’s not a bluff,” Johnson told POLITICO. “Until I have the information where I am certain this is … in the best interest for the folks in Wisconsin — that this puts us in a better position tomorrow than we are today — I’m not going to be voting yes.”
By joining with Sens. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, Johnson has significant leverage. McConnell can only lose two of his 52 Republicans for the bill to still pass — so he’ll have to pick off at least two conservatives, depending on whether he can keep every other Senate Republican on board. McConnell’s job got tougher Friday when Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said he would oppose the bill for being too conservative — because it doesn’t protect states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare.
The opposition from Paul, Cruz and Lee was somewhat expected. And even the opposition from Heller was not surprising, given that he is facing the Senate GOP’s toughest reelection race next year.
But Johnson is rarely such a thorn in the side of GOP leaders.
Johnson’s chief concerns are ensuring there is enough time to analyze the bill, driving down premiums and protecting states that refused Medicaid expansion as Wisconsin did. His opposition did not come as a surprise to Republicans working on the bill, who said he has been extremely vocal in closed-door GOP conference meetings. Johnson, a former business owner and accountant, has argued that Republicans need to rely less on politics and more on policy experts such as actuaries and insurance executives to craft their bill — a request that leadership tried to meet by bringing them to meetings.
Johnson, as well as the other Senate conservatives opposing the original draft, have been careful to leave wiggle room for negotiation, honoring McConnell’s request to not publicly slam the door shut. Republicans working on the bill believe they can win over the Wisconsinite by connecting him with experts and officials who can address his concerns, such as CEOs of insurance companies or Wisconsin institutions.
“I’ve been voicing this repeatedly throughout the process,” Johnson said of his need for information. After Thursday’s meeting where Senate leaders unveiled the legislation, “I had a number of staff members come over offering to provide whatever information I need, which is good.”
GOP leaders say the strongest argument they have for winning over Johnson — or any other Republican on the fence — is that they all promised to repeal Obamacare.
“Everybody needs to be thinking about voting no and particularly if you’re the vote that takes it down,” a Republican senator said of the leadership strategy. “We can afford to lose a couple but after that,” the senator said, trailing off.
That argument may carry more resonance with Johnson — or embolden him to ensure the GOP bill goes as far as possible to repeal Obamacare. Johnson had made a mark in Washington by opposing Obamacare. Much of his 2010 Senate race against the Democratic incumbent, Russ Feingold, was focused on disparaging the recently passed health care law. Since then, Johnson has sponsored many anti-Obamacare bills and even tried to take an Obamacare legal challenge to the Supreme Court.
But Johnson is beholden to few in Washington. He largely self-financed his 2010 race as a political neophyte. In his reelection race last year, establishment Republicans largely gave up on Johnson’s reelection chances and sent precious campaign dollars elsewhere in the country.
Johnson says he wants to see a CBO score on the health bill, which is expected early next week — just days before McConnell plans to hold a vote. He said he needs time to analyze the bill’s impact on the health system, doctors and hospitals.
“I have a hard time believing I’ll have that information prior to when leadership may want to vote on this,” he said Thursday.
Johnson raised his concerns about Medicaid funding levels with President Donald Trump at a White House meeting with other lawmakers last week. His other major beef is that the bill won’t do enough to reduce premiums — a chief complaint among Cruz, Lee and Paul. They would like the bill to repeal Obamacare’s requirement that insurance companies accept everyone regardless of a pre-existing condition — a political non-starter with many other Republicans. The Senate conservatives say there are other ways to protect people with medical problems, such as high-risk pools.
“The primary driver of premium increases is guaranteed issue,” Johnson said, referring to the Obamacare protection for pre-existing conditions. “We really should be talking about providing individuals the freedom to purchase the kind of health care products they want to buy not being dictated by the federal government.”