Top Vermont officials across the political spectrum, including Gov. Phil Scott, have consistently opposed proposals in Congress this year to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
This week, Senate efforts to change the health care law seemed poised to advance, after a key vote went forward to begin what would be a 20-hour debate on the issue.
But in a moment of high drama in the wee hours Friday morning, three Republicans, including an ailing Sen. John McCain, broke ranks to vote against a bare bones repeal proposal that had been unveiled just hours earlier.
Speaking to reporters at the Burlington airport early Friday afternoon, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he has been speaking to other Senate members about working collaboratively to improve the health care law.
“Why don’t we go back and find what works the most, strengthen it,” Leahy said. “There are parts that do not work, and change it.”
When asked about Sen. McCain’s return to the Senate, Leahy became emotional. The Arizona Republican returned to Washington this week after learning last week that he has brain cancer. McCain’s “no” vote Friday morning defeated the final repeal effort of the week.
Leahy, who said he has been a friends with McCain for some time, hugged McCain on the Senate floor and said he could feel that he had lost weight. As McCain delivered a speech on the floor Tuesday afternoon, Leahy thought to himself it was like “a farewell speech.”
Leahy said he hopes McCain would inspire others in the Senate to resume a more bipartisan approach.
“He’s a good man, and I’m hoping that some people on both sides of the aisle, say, ‘let’s be grown ups,’” Leahy said.
Leahy was optimistic that Congress could turn to the traditional committee process for legislation.
“The Senate should be the conscience of the nation,” Leahy said. “I wouldn’t have come back there this year if I didn’t think it could be better.”
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said Friday the early morning vote was “a relief.”
“That bill was bad and would have only gotten worse,” he said.
However, Welch does not view the debate as over.
“It’s not a time for celebration,” he said. “It’s a time to start rolling up our sleeves and doing the hard work of improving the health care system.”
As the health care debate has escalated in the Senate in recent weeks, Welch has sought to rally a group of Democrats in the House to try to encourage bipartisan collaboration.
Early this week, Welch and 88 other House Democrats sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., in an effort to try to work with the majority party to improve the individual insurance market.
Welch said he believes there is an appetite for bipartisan work on health care among members of Congress, however he is “not sure it’s there at the leadership level.”
Now, he said, the biggest challenge to the health care law may be from the executive branch. The Trump administration has “a lot of capacity to damage the Affordable Care Act” outside of the legislative process, he said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., did not respond to a request for comment on the health care vote.
Gov. Phil Scott, who has twice in recent weeks joined a bipartisan group of governors to urge the Senate to slow down on Obamacare repeal efforts, said Friday be believes the Senate “did the right thing.”
Scott said he believes that there still should be health care reforms. However, he said, there should be more collaboration across the aisle.
“Congress shouldn’t repeat the mistake of forcing a party line vote on the ACA,” Scott said. “They should take the time to work together, including listening to Governors, and get it right.”
Going forward, he sees a need to address growing costs of healthcare, which he said have made Obamacare “unsustainable” for state and federal budgets.
Vermont Secretary of Human Services Al Gobeille said Friday he anticipates more discussion ahead on health care at the federal level.
“I don’t think this conversation’s over,” Gobeille said. “Now the question is where does it go from here, and I don’t think anyone knows right now.”
The uncertainty over the future of the Affordable Care Act is challenging when it comes to managing Medicaid at a state level, he said. It is difficult to plan several years out into the future when it is not clear that the federal government will be a willing partner in the program, he said.
If the executive branch tries to change the health care law through rulemaking or other non-legislative approaches, then “it could be tough,” Gobeille said.