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Vulnerable Republicans back Senate Democrats' bill opposing Obamacare lawsuit

Senate Democrats' largely symbolic bid to cut off the Trump administration's support for a Supreme Court challenge to Obamacare failed as expected Thursday, but several Republicans facing tough reelections crossed party lines to back the measure.

Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, who are trying to reassure voters about their defense of insurance protections for preexisting conditions, backed the Democrats' measure. Another Republican, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who opposed Obamacare repeal efforts three years ago, also supported the bill.

But the bill fell 51-43, short of the 60 votes needed to advance.

Democrats through an unusual procedural maneuver seized control of the Senate agenda to force a challenging vote for Republicans ahead of a Supreme Court case that threatens Obamacare's survival. Democrats have sought to highlight the case's risk to health care coverage and insurance protections for tens of millions of Americans as Republicans rush to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat with President Donald Trump's nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. The court is slated to hear arguments in the lawsuit on Nov. 10, one week after Election Day.

On a conference call with reporters ahead of the vote, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called his GOP colleagues “the dog that caught the car” when it comes to the Affordable Care Act — citing years of failed repeal efforts that are now culminating in the high-stakes Supreme Court case without a viable replacement ready.

“They may feel they have the opportunity to get what they wanted and eliminate the ACA, but they have no answer for the American people who are demanding to know what their plan is to protect their health care,” Schumer said. “How do they explain how they can sue to tear down the ACA while they still claim they want to protect Americans’ health?”

Earlier this week, Schumer filed a motion to vote on a bill blocking the Justice Department from supporting the Obamacare lawsuit, which was brought by a group of Republican-led states. With no Republican on the Senate floor to object, the gambit was successful, resulting in Thursday's vote.

Many Republican senators have sought to distance themselves from the Obamacare lawsuit, wary of reopening a fight over a health care law that’s grown more popular since the repeal effort failed three years ago. Legal experts had largely expected the Supreme Court to uphold the law, but the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last month — and Trump's rush to replace her — raised the likelihood the court could overturn or undercut Obamacare. Barrett, who is on track for confirmation before the court hears the Obamacare case next month, was critical of Chief Justice John Roberts’ 2012 decision upholding the law.

All six Republican senators who supported Democrats' bill on Thursday voted for the 2017 tax cut legislation that prompted the latest Supreme Court challenge to Obamacare. The lawsuit claims that tax measure, by eliminating the penalty for not having health insurance, rendered all of Obamacare unconstitutional.

Trump and Republican lawmakers have increasingly expressed their support for preexisting conditions protections on the campaign trail, but they have not coalesced around a viable plan for replacing Obamacare. Democrats' pledges to defend the insurance protections fueled electoral victories in the 2018 midterms, and they're running on the same playbook this year.

On Wednesday night, Republicans sought to preempt Thursday's measure on the Obamacare lawsuit with a vote on a bill that would preserve some of Obamacare's protections for people with preexisting conditions should the Supreme Court overturn the law. The measure failed on a 47-47 vote, with GOP Sens. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul joining all Democrats in opposition.

The bill from Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who's also facing a tough reelection fight, would replicate Obamacare's ban on health insurers denying people coverage based on a preexisting condition, but it would leave out other consumer protections in the decadeold health care law. His bill wouldn't prevent insurers from setting lifetime or annual limits on coverage or charging people more based on their gender, and it wouldn't require insurers to cover a mandated set of benefits.

"[Democrats'] plan couldn’t be clearer: they would rather have a political issue to scare Americans about Judge Barrett’s nomination rather than solve the problem," Tillis said in a statement.

The North Carolina Democratic Party charged that Tillis' measure was inadequate.

“If Senator Tillis was serious about protecting people with preexisting conditions, he would push his party to drop their lawsuit seeking to eviscerate those very protections and refuse to confirm a nominee to the Supreme Court who will upend our health care,” said party Chair Wayne Goodwin. “Instead, he’s focused on political cover for himself.”

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