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Senate Democrats can’t stop a health care vote. Here’s what they’ll do instead.

Tim Kaine
Johnny Louis | WireImage | Getty Images
Tim Kaine

Senate Democrats are preparing a barrage of amendments to force Republicans to take politically unpopular votes on their plan to repeal Obamacare.

Because of the complicated legislative vehicle Republicans are using to advance their health bill, Democrats will have a brief window to offer amendments that the GOP will almost certainly reject. On Tuesday, Senate Republicans just barely managed to cobble together the votes to pass a "motion to proceed" — setting the stage for Democrats to get the chance to put forward changes to the bill in an upcoming "vote-a-rama."

"A lot of my colleagues have other amendments and we're going to have to figure out how to prioritize them," Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday. Kaine suggested he would propose his reinsurance package to fix the Obamacare exchanges, which would give insurers funding to pay for high-cost enrollees.

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On their own, Senate Democrats don't have the votes to stop or even slow down the GOP bill. Their amendments are sure to be rejected by the Republican caucus. Still, Democrats will use that opportunity to get Republicans on record as opposing popular health care provisions.

And they'll also use whatever tactics at their disposal to stall it. Shortly after the Motion to Proceed passed on Tuesday, Democrats forced the Senate Clerk to read the entire text of Republicans' Better Care Reconciliation Act as a way to slow debate on the bill.

Over the last two months, Democrats have done everything within their power to kill the GOP bill. Starting the week of June 20, Democrats started withholding consent over unrelated Senate business over the health care bill, grinding the normal operations of the body to a halt. They invoked the "two-hour rule," which stops Senate hearings after the first two hours of the day, to boycott Senate committee hearings, and they held press conferences with Medicaid enrollees and their families on the Capitol steps. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has held dozens of rallies in states like Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania — the backyards of several senators who are swing votes on the bill — and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer led Senate Democrats in a succession of press conferences and rallies.

Among the options Democrats are discussing is an amendment to protect Planned Parenthood funding and another to dedicate significantly greater funding to fighting the opioid crisis, according to two Senate Democratic aides who spoke with Vox. Still, as one aide pointed out, the Better Care Reconciliation Act is wildly unpopular and polling at under 20 points nationally. For procedural reasons, that version of the bill is unlikely to pass with the bare majority Republicans have in the Senate, but Republicans are still floating other options, like "skinny repeal," which would make the individual mandate toothless (likely resulting in a marketplace death spiral) and keep the Medicaid expansion largely intact. Republicans will almost certainly be tying themselves to a wildly unpopular bill, with or without having to take a position on amendments from Senate Democrats.

Still, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) said her office was currently evaluating what amendments she might be able to offer. "We'll be looking at all the issues we think are important in providing health care for people," Shaheen said. "Obviously, I've been talking about marketplace certainty and the importance of Cost Sharing Reduction payments, so we'll be looking at that." Asked what amendments Democrats would offer, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) responded simply: "Many."

Technically, some of the Democrats' amendments are likely to call for the bill to be sent back to the relevant committees, which would then be tasked with aligning the amendment with the new bill. (This won't happen because, again, Republicans aren't going to accept any of these amendments.)

Here's an early and partial list of amendments currently under consideration, as revealed in conversations with several Democratic aides:

— A proposal that would eliminate any tax cuts in the bill that would go to the richest 2 percent of Americans;

— A proposal to ensure that the bill does nothing to reduce the budget of Medicaid;

— A proposal to prevent any funding cuts in the Republican health bill from hitting rural hospitals;

— A proposal to prevent any funding cuts from deepening the opioid crisis;

— A proposal to advance reinsurance, which would give states federal money to give insurers funding for their most expensive, high-cost enrollees;

— A proposal to say that nobody with cancer or diabetes can be harmed by the Republican bill.

All of this will add to a general feeling of chaos as Republicans barrel ahead with their Obamacare repeal plan. No one knows for sure what will happen.