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Republicans can’t wait to debate Medicare for All

Reps. Kevin Brady (left) and Greg Walden answer questions on the American Health Care Act in 2017. GOP lawmakers are trolling Democrats with demands for hearings on the sweeping single-payer bill set to be introduced this month. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

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But the progressive Democrats clamoring for hearings on Medicare for All are embracing the calls from across the aisle.

The only people more eager than progressive Democrats for hearings on Medicare for All are conservative Republicans.

GOP lawmakers, fresh off an electoral shellacking fueled in large part by health care concerns, are now trolling Democrats with demands for hearings on the sweeping single-payer bill set to be introduced this month. They’re confident that revelations about its potential cost andelimination of most private insurance will give them potent lines of attack heading into 2020 — an election that President Donald Trump is already framing as a debate about “socialism.”

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“We should have the opportunity to have a hearing on a bill Democrats say they are for,” Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told POLITICO. “They’ve campaigned on it. Now, let’s find out what it is and what they’re promoting.”

“We’re going to pull the curtain back on Medicare for All so the American people can actually assess it,” added Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on House Ways and Means.

The progressives backing the bill say, “Bring it on.” They are convinced the Republicans are miscalculating, much as they did with their doomed attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare.

“They think it’s going to be a ‘gotcha’ moment,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the lead author of the forthcoming bill. “But they have been wrong on this and continue to be wrong on it.”

The Republicans’ counterintuitive move seeks to exacerbate real divisions within the Democratic Party on how far and how fast to move beyond Obamacare and chart a course toward Medicare for All. Senior Democrats leading the House’s health committees blasted the GOP request as “cynical” and “disingenuous” and said it would not affect their timeline for weighing the policy.

But the progressive Democrats clamoring for hearings on Medicare for All are embracing the calls from across the aisle.

“I’m happy Republicans want to have this debate,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). “I’m confident we can make the economic argument for Medicare for All.”

While the House Rules and Budget committees are already set to hold hearings on Medicare for All starting in February or March, there have been no firm commitments from the Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means panels whose endorsements are needed for a floor vote. Jayapal and other Medicare for All proponents have been pressing the panels’ leaders for hearings since Democrats won back in the House in November. Now, Republicans are trying to squeeze them from the right.

Hearings are needed to determine “how House Democrats expect to address the massive costs associated with Medicare for All,” Walden and Health subcommittee ranking member Michael Burgess (R-Texas) wrote in a letter to Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), demanding the committee move to scrutinize the policy.

Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand

Republicans are convinced they can portray Medicare for All as reckless and expensive social engineering that’s far out of the mainstream. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly 70 percent of Americans favor Medicare for All when they hear it would eliminate health insurance premiums and reduce out-of-pocket costs. But that approval plummets to below 40 percent when people are told they might have to pay more in taxes and that private health insurance would be eliminated.

But members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are just as convinced the Republicans are misjudging the public’s appetite for a stronger social safety net and will overplay their hand — bringing a policy they hate one step closer to passage.

“We will give Republicans what they want,” a grinning Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) told reporters. “They can even take credit for it.”

Pocan compared the dynamic to Republicans’ threat last year to force a potentially embarrassing vote on his bill to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement. When Democrats called their bluff, Republican leaders backed down by canceling the vote and instead bringing up a nonbinding resolution of support for ICE.

“They always think they’re more clever than the American people, but I find that they never are,” Pocan said.

Pallone, the man with the power to schedule a hearing on the bill, is not amused.

He responded Wednesday with an off-the-cuff rant at the opening of an unrelated committee hearing on threats to the Affordable Care Act, accusing Republicans of acting in bad faith.

“Oh, sure, we’ll have a hearing on something you think is going to destroy the country,” he fumed. “Who are you kidding? When does a member of Congress ask for a hearing on something they oppose? I ask for hearings on things I want to happen.”

Though Pallone said the committee intends to take up Medicare for All at some point, he didn’t make a firm commitment. Nor has Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.). But with the introduction of the Medicare for All bill just days away, lawmakers on both sides are intensifying the drumbeat.

Frank Pallone

Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, shown here in 2017, said the committee intends to take up Medicare for All at some point, but didn’t make a firm commitment. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Brady, the Texas Republican, predicted that “hearings would lay out the truth, which is that will ban all private health care plans, including the good plans people get at work.”

“It’s government control to an unprecedented degree over your health care decisions,” Brady continued. “And finally, that the cost of this, $ 32 trillion or more, will bust both America’s finances, weaken Medicare, and double everyone’s taxes in America. We’re going to want the American public in these hearings to see that.”

Proponents of the bill dispute these characterizations about the policy’s cost and impact. They’ve argued, for example, that the $ 32 trillion price tag calculated by the conservative Mercatus Center is actually less that what the U.S. would spend over the next decade by keeping the current system in place. And while private, employer-sponsored plan would be eliminated and replaced by government-run insurance under the bill, people would still be able to purchase some supplemental private insurance if they so chose.

But Brady and other Republicans plan to capitalize on the public’s confusion about Medicare for All and erode its fairly high level of popularity.

For example, a University of Chicago survey released in January found that a majority of people believe, incorrectly, that public insurance would be optional under Medicare for All and that they would be able to keep their private health coverage. Many people surveyed were similarly ill-informed on who would be eligible under a single-payer model, what benefits would be covered and how much it would cost.

The GOP lawmakers think they can, at a minimum, address these misconceptions about Medicare for All, if not portray it as an example of a borderline-socialist agenda that also includes such proposals as the House Democrats’ “Green New Deal.”

“If you want a socialist experiment with Medicare, by all means vote Democrat,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) recently posted on Twitter.

Trump sounded a similar theme during Tuesday’s State of the Union address, saying he is “alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country.”

Lloyd Doggett

Fears about cost and disrupting coverage have made Medicare for All far from a consensus position among Democrats. Much of the party prefers a “Medicare for More” approach that would allow some or all Americans to buy into a government-run insurance program while allowing those who prefer to keep their private plans to do so.

Republicans are well aware of these tensions within the Democratic caucus and how they may work to their advantage.

“To have these hearings would perhaps highlight a very sharp divide that’s out there,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus, told POLITICO.

Democrats, including Energy and Commerce’s Health subcommittee chair Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), counter that Republicans are intentionally misrepresenting the spectrum of health care ideas currently under debate.

“There are several Medicare for All bills,” she said. “None of them are the same, they do different things. And so of course they want to center on the one that they brought up [this week].”

To the frustration of progressives, Eshoo has said that her subcommittee will get around to examining Medicare for All only after working its way through a long list of other priorities, including legislation to protect and strengthen Obamacare and bills to lower the cost of the prescription drugs.

Like Pallone, she told POLITICO the new Republican calls for hearings change nothing.

“This is not exactly what they care about,” she quipped. “What they care about is whacking us over the head.”

Adam Cancryn contributed to this report.

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