Democrats stall Senate work to protest healthcare secrecy

U.S. Senate Democrats said they plan to slow Senate business to a crawl starting Monday evening to protest behind-the-scenes Republican work on repealing former President Barack Obama's healthcare law, known as Obamacare.

By Susan Cornwell | WASHINGTON

Democrats will take advantage of Senate rules which allow any member to object to moving forward with routine business, a Democratic aide said. This could slow Senate operations by forcing the Republican majority to hold additional procedural votes in order to move ahead.

Democrats object to closed-door meetings that Republicans have held in recent weeks to craft legislation to replace Obamacare, formally known as the Affordable Care Act. Republican leaders would like a vote in July, even before the July 4 recess if possible.

"What Democrats are aiming to do is highlight how appalling it is for Republicans to try to jam through a bill that impacts one-sixth of our economy, and would undermine the health and financial security of patients and families nationwide, without so much as a single public hearing or a robust floor debate," said the Democratic aide, who asked not to be named.

It was unclear how long the Democrats would stage their protest. Asked to comment, a spokesman for Republican Majority leader Mitch McConnell said only that the Senate intended to vote on nominees for Trump administration positions in the coming days.

Senate Republicans also face pressure from the right. In the House of Representatives, conservatives wrote to McConnell about media reports on the Senate's work. Conservatives worry that the changes may make it harder to pass the legislation in the House.

Reports that Senate Republicans are considering phasing out the Obamacare Medicaid expansion over three to seven years, instead of ending it in 2020 as the House bill would, have upset some House conservatives, as have other details that have leaked from the Senate talks. Medicaid is the government healthcare program for the poor.

"We write to express our serious concerns," the letter from House conservatives said, that the Senate efforts "are headed in a direction that may jeopardize final passage in the House of Representatives."

The Republican Study Committee, the largest group of House conservatives, was circulating the letter for signatures, said a House Republican aide, who asked not to be named. The group is chaired by Representative Mark Walker.

Even without outside pressure, Senate Republicans have struggled to coalesce around an Obamacare replacement bill, with moderates and conservatives in the party pushing in different directions.

The House narrowly approved its version of repeal last month. However, Republican President Donald Trump last week urged the Senate to pass a more generous replacement program.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)