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Senate mulls bare-bones healthcare bill; marathon of voting expected

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Republicans embarked on Thursday on another push to unravel Obamacare, working on a stripped-down bill after failing to pass broader legislation and complete a seven-year campaign to gut a law that extended health coverage to millions.

Republicans leaders hope a so-called skinny bill, which repeals a few key provisions of Democratic former President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law without being a far-reaching overhaul, can draw enough votes to pass despite unified Democratic opposition.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the other Republican leaders had still not unveiled the contents of this bare-bones legislation ahead of an expected marathon succession of votes that promises to drag into Friday morning.

The skinny bill is expected to eliminate requirements under the 2010 Affordable Care Act that individuals obtain health insurance or face a fine and that businesses with more than 50 employees provide medical coverage, and to abolish a tax on medical device manufacturers.

“I urge everyone to keep working hard so we can get this over the finish line,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.

“The moment before us is one that many of us have waited for and talked about for a very long time,” he added.

Republican senators were expected to hammer out provisions of the measure during a policy lunch on Thursday, giving lawmakers scant hours to digest its provisions before voting. Republican leaders have been sending pieces of the legislation to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office to assess its impact and determine whether it complies with Senate rules.

President Donald Trump, who has expressed exasperation that Congress has not yet sent him a healthcare bill even with his party controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, weighed in again early on Thursday.

“Come on Republican Senators, you can do it on Healthcare. After 7 years, this is your chance to shine! Don’t let the American people down!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

The effort follows a chaotic two-month push by Senate Republicans to pass their version of legislation after the House of Representatives approved a bill in May.

If it gets approval, the legislation would go to a committee of lawmakers from both chambers to meld the House and Senate versions into a single bill, said No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn. A compromise bill would then have to go back to the House and Senate for final passage.

Later on Thursday, the Senate was set to embark on a so-called vote-a-rama, a by-product of the special process under which the bill was brought up in order to avoid having to amass 60 votes in the 100-seat chamber for passage. This entails a rolling series of votes that would potentially involve scores of time-consuming amendments that can be offered by any senator.

Republicans then hope to move to a straight yes-or-no vote on a healthcare bill some time on Friday.

Republicans control the Senate by a 52-48 margin. They can afford to lose only two Republican votes to secure passage, with Vice President Mike Pence casting a tie-breaking vote.

Trump and many other Republicans campaigned last year on a pledge to repeal and replace what they view as a failing law that constitutes government intrusion into people’s healthcare decisions. Democrats noted that Obamacare has extended health insurance to 20 million Americans.

Divide Among Republicans

Republicans have faced an internal rift over how to replace Obamacare, with hard-line conservatives seeking a bill that thoroughly scraps it and moderates unwilling to support measures that could strip tens of millions of people of their health insurance.

Nonetheless, Republicans were optimistic about the skinny bill’s chances. Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, asked if his party had the votes to repeal the mandate that people obtain health insurance or pay a fine, told MSNBC: “Probably so.”

The Republicans planned a bit of political gamesmanship that appeared intended to embarrass liberal Democrats who have long advocated a so-called single-payer government-run healthcare system. Obamacare fell well short of providing that.

“We’ll vote on single-payer this afternoon, and we’ll find out what support it enjoys in the Senate, especially over on the other side of the aisle,” McConnell said, referring to Democrats.

Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley said he planned to offer more than 100 amendments in an effort to disrupt the Republican quest. “We want people to understand the gravity. This is no ordinary bill. This touches lives. People will not get healthcare,” Merkley told National Public Radio.

The Senate voted 55-45 on Wednesday against a simple repeal of Obamacare that would have provided a two-year delay so Congress could work out a replacement plan. Seven Republicans opposed the bill. On Tuesday, senators rejected the broad repeal-and-replace plan Republicans had worked on since May.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated on Wednesday that a combination of provisions that might go into the skinny bill would lead to 16 million people losing their health coverage by 2026. It had earlier estimated that the two other bills rejected by the Senate this week would have led to 22 million to 32 million people losing their health insurance by 2026.

Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Yasmeen Abutaleb; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Doina Chiacu, Amanda Becker, David Morgan and Susan Heavey; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Frances Kerry