After debating seven hours through the night, the Senate voted early Thursday to take the first real step toward repealing Obamacare — a top goal of congressional Republicans and President-elect Donald Trump.
Senators voted 51-48 to approve a budget resolution that Republicans will use as a vehicle to speed through repeal of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. House leaders plan to take it up Friday.
Senators began voting on 19 amendments to the resolution about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday before passing the budget measure about 1:30 a.m. Thursday.
Republicans said the 2010 health care law is broken and must be repealed and replaced with something better — although just what that replacement plan will look like has not yet been revealed by congressional leaders. Critics of the law cite sky-rocketing premiums, high deductibles and fewer health care choices for patients as insurers pull out of the program.
"When Obamacare's supporters forced their partisan law on our country, they promised an easy-to-use system; one that would lower premiums and out-of-pocket health care costs; one that would foster choice and allow families to keep the plans and doctors they liked," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"But it didn't take long for the American people to discover the truth about Obamacare. Too many have been personally hurt by this law. Too many feel they're worse off than they were before Obamacare."
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Democrats said repealing the law will strip millions of Americans of insurance, leave people with pre-existing medical conditions unable to find coverage, and increase the nation's budget deficit by $353 billion over the next 10 years as the tax and fee provisions that pay for Obamacare are gutted.
"Ripping apart our health care system — with no plan to replace it — will create chaos," said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the senior Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "If Republicans repeal the Affordable Care Act, it's women, kids, seniors, patients with serious illnesses, and people with disabilities who will bear the burden."
"Premiums will skyrocket," she continued. "Out-of-pocket prescription drug costs will rise. And overall health care costs will increase. It's a perfect storm to make America sick again — and absolutely the wrong direction for families and for our economy."
While Republicans are eager to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they have acknowledged that it could cause serious problems for Americans if the law is scrapped without a replacement plan ready to go.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters Tuesday that "it is our goal to bring it all together concurrently."
"We're going to use every tool at our disposal through legislation, through regulation, to bring replace concurrent along with repeal, so that we can save people from this mess," Ryan said. He did not offer details of what a replacement plan would include.
At a press conference Wednesday, Trump said he is prepared to offer a detailed replacement plan as soon as his nominee for Health and Human Services secretary — Republican Rep. Tom Price of Georgia — is confirmed by the Senate.
Republicans are using a procedural tactic known as budget reconciliation to prevent Senate Democrats from being able to block an Obamacare repeal. The procedure allows the Senate to pass a repeal with only a simple majority of 51 votes rather than the 60-vote super-majority required for most major bills. Republicans have 52 seats in the Senate.
The resolution that the Senate passed early Thursday directs key committees to write draft legislation by Jan. 27 to repeal the health care law. Some Republicans want the deadline to be pushed to March to give lawmakers more time to come up with a replacement plan.
Democrats offered amendments they knew would fail but that put senators on record voting for or against some of the more popular provisions of Obamacare. Those include a provision barring insurance companies from refusing to cover patients with pre-existing medical conditions and a provision that allows young adults to remain on their parents' health insurance until age 26.
Republicans have said they plan to keep those provisions in whatever replacement plan they offer.