A bipartisan proposal to calm churning health insurance markets gained momentum Thursday when enough lawmakers rallied behind it to give it potentially unstoppable Senate support. As the measure's prospects grew, Republican frustration burst into the open over President Donald Trump's erratic response to the plan.
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington appeared together on the Senate floor to announce 24 sponsors, divided evenly between both parties, for resuming federal subsidies to insurers that Trump has blocked. Without the money, insurers are expected to raise premiums for many buying individual coverage and flee unprofitable markets.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said all 48 Democrats would back the measure in a vote. That meant that combined with the dozen GOP sponsors there would be 60 votes for the legislation, the number needed to overcome a filibuster, a delaying tactic meant to kill legislation.
"Every Democrat's voting for it. Do the math, baby," an exultant Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters.
The politically compelling arithmetic raises pressure on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who's been noncommittal so far, to let the Senate consider the legislation. A McConnell spokesman said the leader had made no new statement on the bill.
The growing Senate support also improved the chances that the proposal would become law, perhaps later this year as part of a must-pass measure financing the entire government.
The measure would still have to clear the House, where Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and many conservatives have been cold to the idea, and win Trump's signature.
The GOP sponsors included Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. They co-sponsored their party's failed effort in September to dismantle President Barack Obama's health care law and instead send federal health care dollars directly to states as block grants. Party leaders have discussed trying anew in 2018.
In a statement, Graham and Cassidy said the compromise to restore insurers' subsidies "will not pass unless concerns of the House are addressed." They said they were trying to get agreement on provisions giving states additional flexibility to ease some of Obama's requirements.
Obama's Affordable Care Act requires insurers to reimburse poorer customers for out-of-pocket costs like deductibles and co-pays. It helps around 6 million people.
The law also obliges the government to repay carriers for those costs, around $7 billion this year. A federal judge concluded that Congress never properly approved the money, but Obama and Trump continued the payments until Trump halted them last week.
"''I do not believe Congress will want to fail to deal with a problem that will hurt millions of Americans if we allow it to continue," Alexander said.
The Alexander-Murray agreement extends the payments for two years. It gives states additional flexibility under Obama's law and allows consumers of any age to buy low-cost catastrophic coverage plans.
Alexander said he spoke by phone twice Wednesday with Trump, who encouraged him to move forward with a bipartisan solution.
When the two senators unveiled their agreement earlier this week, the president initially reacted favorably but then condemned the deal as a bailout for insurers. The president's varying responses frustrated lawmakers of both parties and appeared to have stalled the deal.
Questioned in the Oval Office on Thursday, the president again sounded lukewarm.
"I like people working on plans at all times. I think, ultimately, block grants is the way to go," Trump said, apparently referring to the Senate's failed bill in September.
"It'll be absolutely short term," Trump said of the bipartisan plan, "because, ultimately, we will be, it's going to be repeal and replace."
Trump added, "I don't want the insurance companies making any more money ... than they have to."
Anticipating that Trump would block the subsidies, many insurers have boosted premiums for 2018 policies to make up the difference. Some Republicans say restoring the federal payments would give insurers a windfall.
Alexander and Murray say they've built language into their bill to ensure consumers get the funds and are open to changes to satisfy Trump.
GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin gave voice to frustration with the president's inconsistent response.
"It's always best for the president to be completely consistent in terms of what he's supporting or not supporting," Johnson told reporters at the Capitol. "And let's face it, he's not been particularly consistent here."
Johnson said inaccurate rhetoric about the deal from Trump and others has harmed the legislation's prospects.
"It's unfortunate what's happened over the last day in terms of the rhetoric from all points. 'Bailing out insurance companies' — insurance companies get protected either way," Johnson said.