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Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday said the Trump administration fully supports a last-ditch Senate bill to gut and replace Obamacare — but 10 governors of both parties immediately afterward called on Senate leaders to not even consider that legislation.
The dueling views came as the clock kept ticking toward to a Sept. 30 deadline for passage of the Graham-Cassidy bill, which would effectively replace the Affordable Care Act.
Republicans, who have 52 seats in the Senate, continue to struggle to cobble together the 50 votes they need in that chamber to pass the bill.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Tuesday did not commit to holding a vote on the bill before the end of the month, a sign of the political difficulty it faces.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the bill's sponsors, told reporters that if Republicans passed the legislation it would "stop a march toward socialism."
Graham warned that if the bill fails, the nation would move closer to adopting a single-payer health system of the kind called for last week by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist from Vermont.
"Here's the choice for America: socialism or federalism when it comes to your health care," said Graham, whose bill would block grant federal funds to individual states to craft their own health coverage systems.
But Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Graham-Cassidy is "a bill to end Medicaid as we know it."
Schumer said individual Republicans are "ashamed" of the bill, and are trying to ram it through Congress without a traditional set of hearings and without a full analysis of its effects by the Congressional Budget Office because "they're afraid to find out what it actually does" to Americans.
Pence said he was set to tell Republican senators at a lunch Tuesday that the House of Representatives will reject any legislation to prop up individual insurance markets under the Affordable Care Act.
But the 10 governors — Republicans, Democrats and an independent — called on the Senate to pass exactly that kind of insurance market stabilization legislation.
A Senate committee led by Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has been considering a series of measures to prop up Obamacare markets, including by guaranteeing the continuation of federal subsidies paid to insurance companies in exchange for discounts in customers' out-of-pocket health costs.
Pence's comments came aboard Air Force Two as it flew to Washington from New York, with Graham aboard.
On Monday night, Pence told a pool reporter aboard the flight that President Donald Trump called Graham to encourage him, and to say the bill must be passed by Congress.
When Graham said he had gained a new appreciation for the president's tenacity, Pence quipped, "You're learning."
Pence said he planned to tell senators Tuesday, "This is the moment. Now is the time" to pass an Obamacare repeal bill.
Pence said he also would make clear that Obamacare is collapsing and that the House will not support any efforts to either fix or bolster that health-care law.
"We have 12 days," Pence added, referring to deadline for passing the Graham-Cassidy legislation under the terms of the reconciliation process being used to get the bill approved with just 50 senators voting for it.
The vice president said that he and Graham have been lobbying senators on the phone to support the bill.
Pence said he has even called Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia, to ask him to vote for the legislation. However, no Democrat or independent in the Senate is expected to vote for a repeal bill.
The duo also has reached out to governors to ask for their support, particularly Alaska's Bill Walker, who has said he is worried about the bill leading to Medicaid cuts.
The independent Walker, it turned out, was one the 10 governors who signed a letter Tuesday asking the Senate to reject Graham-Cassidy.
At one point during the conversation, Pence left the cabin of the plane to speak with Trump.
Graham told the pool reporter that he has struck an unlikely partnership with Steve Bannon, the recently fired Trump advisor, whom he referred to as "Darth Vader," to push the health-care bill.
The letter Tuesday to McConnell and Schumer was signed by the governors of Ohio, Colorado, Montana, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Louisiana, Nevada, Massachusetts and Vermont, as well as by Alaska's Walker.
"As you continue to consider changes to the American health care system, we ask you not to consider the Graham-Cassidy-Heller-Johnson amendment and renew support for bipartisan efforts to make health care more available and affordable for all Americans," the letter said.
"Only open, bipartisan approaches can achieve true, lasting reforms," the governors wrote.
"We ask you to support bipartisan efforts to bring stability and affordability to our insurance markets. Legislation should receive consideration under regular order, including hearings in health committees and input from the appropriate health-related parties."
"Improvements to our health insurance markets should control costs, stabilize the market, and positively impact coverage and care of millions of Americans, including many who are dealing with mental illness, chronic health problems, and drug addiction."
Schumer, in his own remarks to reporters Tuesday, blasted Graham's bill, which he called even more "dangerous" than prior Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare.
Schumer said if Graham-Cassidy becomes law "millions will lose coverage," there will be no guarantees of affordable coverage for people with pre-existing health conditions, and would cripple Medicaid.
Earlier Tuesday, the American Medical Association and the National Council for Behavioral Health joined a host of other health-care groups that have announced their opposition to the bill.
"We believe the Graham-Cassidy Amendment would result in millions of Americans losing their health insurance coverage, destabilize health insurance markets, and decrease access to affordable coverage and care," wrote AMA Executive Vice President and CEO Dr. James L. Madara in a letter to Senate leaders.
"We sincerely urge the Senate to take short-term measures to stabilize the health insurance market."
In a letter to all senators on Tuesday, AARP, the leading lobbying group for older Americans, said it opposed the bill "on behalf of our nearly 38 million members" because it would not help make premiums more affordable, lower out-of-pocket costs, and offer coverage they can count on.
"Overall, the Graham/Cassidy/Heller/Johnson bill would increase health care costs for older Americans with an age tax, decrease coverage, and undermine preexisting condition protections," the group wrote. "In addition, this bill would jeopardize the ability of older Americans and people with disabilities to stay in their own homes as they age and threaten coverage for individuals in nursing homes."