Senate Republicans complain of chaos in healthcare effort

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Republicans, scolded by President Donald Trump for failing to overturn Obamacare, tried to salvage their seven-year effort for a new healthcare law on Thursday, but leading senators indicated frustration over shifting goal posts.

Trump on Wednesday told the Senate's fractured Republican majority to revive a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare that collapsed on Monday after Republicans from both moderate and conservative factions pulled their support.

But after a late-night emergency meeting on how to win over holdouts appeared to yield no progress, senators expressed irritation.

"It really is starting to feel like a bazaar, $50 billion here, $100 billion there, and I feel like it's losing coherency," Senator Bob Corker said.

Susan Collins, a moderate who strongly objected to the revised bill, said Trump contributed to the "lack of clarity" over the next steps.

"The president made very clear yesterday that he wants to see a bill passed," Collins said. "I'm unclear, having heard the president and read his tweets, exactly which bill he wants to pass and whether he is for just repealing, or repealing and replacing - whether he's for the Senate bill."

Trump, who had campaigned heavily on a promise to repeal and replace Obamacare, the signature legislative achievement of former Democratic President Barack Obama, took a hands-off approach to the healthcare debate last week.

On Tuesday he suggested that he was fine with letting Obamacare fail. But on Wednesday he switched course and demanded that senators stay in Washington through their planned August recess until they find common ground on healthcare.

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Protests against the Republican health care bill
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Protests against the Republican health care bill
THE PARK IMPERIAL AT 230 WEST 56TH ST , NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2017/07/10: New Yorkers and healthcare advocacy groups organized a protest on July 10, 2017; outside Rep. John Faso's fundraiser as donors arrive at the Park Imperial at 230 West 56th St. in Midtown Manhattan. Faso voted for the House Trumpcare bill in May, he also coauthored the notorious Collins-Faso amendment to both the House and Senate bills that would shift New York Medicaid funding from counties budgets to the state budget. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A healthcare activist protests to stop the Republican health care bill at Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 17, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Healthcare activists protest to stop the Republican health care bill at Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 17, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Healthcare activists get a police warning during a protest to stop the Republican health care bill at Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 17, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Healthcare activists protest to stop the Republican health care bill at Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 17, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 10: A demonstrater from Arizona chants, 'Kill the bill or lose your job' while sitting on the floor outside the offices of Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) during a protest against health care reform legislation in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill July 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. More than 100 people from across the country were arrested during the protest that was organized by Housing Works and Center for Popular Democracy. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
NEW YORK COUNTY REPUBLICAN OFFICE, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2017/07/05: The Socialist Feminists of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) organized a protest outside of the New York County Republican Office in New York City on July 5, 2017; to tell Republicans that is it despicable and undemocratic that they are trying to ram Trumpcare through the Senate without debate or public hearings. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 10: Health care protesters from Arkansas chant outside of the office of Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., in the Hart Senate Office Building on Monday, July 10, 2017. About a dozen people loudly voiced opposition to the GOP health care bill. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
THE PARK IMPERIAL AT 230 WEST 56TH ST , NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2017/07/10: New Yorkers and healthcare advocacy groups organized a protest on July 10, 2017; outside Rep. John Faso's fundraiser as donors arrive at the Park Imperial at 230 West 56th St. in Midtown Manhattan. Faso voted for the House Trumpcare bill in May, he also coauthored the notorious Collins-Faso amendment to both the House and Senate bills that would shift New York Medicaid funding from counties budgets to the state budget. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 5: A small group of activists rally against the GOP health care plan outside of the Metropolitan Republican Club, July 5, 2017 in New York City. Republicans in the Senate will resume work on the bill next week when Congress returns to Washington after a holiday recess. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
A small group of activists rally against the GOP health care plan outside of the Metropolitan Republican Club, July 5, 2017 in New York City. Republicans in the Senate will resume work on the bill next week when Congress returns to Washington after a holiday recess. (Photo by Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Healthcare activists protest to stop the Republican health care bill at Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Healthcare activists are detained after a protest to stop the Republican health care bill at Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 17, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
A staff members asks the media to leave the room as Healthcare activists protest in the office of Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to stop the Republican health care bill at Russell Senate Office building on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
U.S. Capitol police arrest demonstrators in wheelchairs protesting against the AHCA health care bill put forward by President Trump and Congressional Republicans as several dozen protestors are taken into custody after refusing to leave the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Demonstrators hold signs during a protest against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act outside the Capitol Building in Washington, U.S., March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Healthcare activists are detained after a protest to stop the Republican health care bill at Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 17, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
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The repeal and replace bill crafted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would leave 22 million Americans without health insurance coverage by 2026, the nonpartisan U.S. Congressional Budget Office said on Thursday.

Before Trump's Wednesday lunch with 49 Republican senators, McConnell had planned to hold a straight repeal vote next week, but that appeared doomed with several Republican senators having already said they oppose that approach.

The CBO said on Wednesday that 32 million more Americans would lose their insurance coverage by 2026 under a bill that would repeal much of Obamacare without a replacement. That compares with the 20 million who have become insured under Obamacare, as the Affordable Care Act is known.

In a sign of the disarray on Capitol Hill, the Senate's number two Republican, John Cornyn, said leaders still planned to have a procedural vote next week to take up a healthcare bill, but acknowledged that knowing what is in the bill before the vote is "a luxury we don't have."

MCCAIN'S CANCER ADDS PRESSURE

Adding to Republicans' woes was news late Wednesday that Senator John McCain has aggressive brain cancer. With a narrow 52-48 Republican majority, their fight for votes becomes even more difficult.

McCain, a Republican known for his feisty independence, tweeted, "... unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I'll be back soon, so stand-by!"

As they sought to break the impasse, senators were discussing changes to Medicaid, the government healthcare program for the poor that was expanded under Obamacare. One possibility would give states flexibility to use Medicaid funding to help cover healthcare expenses of people who would lose their Medicaid coverage under the Senate bill's sharp cuts to the program.

Senator Rob Portman, one of the undecideds on the healthcare bill, called the proposal "progress." But Collins said she had not heard a Medicaid proposal that would tempt her to vote yes.

Republicans say Obamacare is a costly intrusion into the healthcare system, but the party is divided between moderates concerned the Senate bill would eliminate insurance for millions of low-income Americans and conservatives who want to see even deeper cuts.

McConnell revealed little of his next steps but said Republicans were not giving up. "The fight to move beyond the status quo of Obamacare was certainly never going to be easy," he told the Senate on Thursday.

"But we've come a long way, and I look forward to continuing our work together to finally bring relief."

The dramatic week at Congress and in the White House was taking its toll.

"I'm getting a little anxious," Corker said. He said the best approach would be a repeal, with a delayed effective date by which time lawmakers could develop a replacement.

Democrats, who are united in their opposition to the Republican efforts and reveled in this week's deadlock, told Republicans to abandon their healthcare efforts as they appeared no closer to reconciling policy differences after Wednesday's meeting.

"It's time for Congress to pivot away from the bills that are going nowhere," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

(Additional reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb; Writing by Mary Milliken; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Leslie Adler)

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