World / Politics

Senator gets ball rolling on killing Obamacare, Ryan returned as Trump-era Congress kicks off, trips

Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi introduced on Tuesday a resolution allowing for the repeal of President Barack Obama’s signature health insurance program, which provides coverage to millions of Americans, Enzi’s office said in a statement.

The move by the Senate’s budget committee chairman on the first day of the new Congress set in motion the Republican majority’s promise to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, as its first major legislative item.

Republicans have said the repeal process could take months and that developing replacement health insurance plans could take years.

More than 20 million previously uninsured Americans gained health coverage through Obamacare. Coverage was extended by expanding the Medicaid program for the poor and through online exchanges where consumers can receive income-based subsidies.

Republicans have launched repeated courtroom and legislative efforts to dismantle the law, criticizing it as government overreach. Democrats have scoffed at Republicans’ plans, accusing them of never having united around a replacement strategy.

The Republicans are using a budget resolution to provide for Obamacare’s repeal, allowing them to act without any Democratic votes. Budget resolutions require a simple majority to pass in the Senate, instead of the 60 votes normally required to clear procedural hurdles. There are 52 Republicans in the 100-seat chamber.

The budget resolution contains so-called reconciliation instructions, directing committees to dismantle Obamacare as part of reconciling taxes and spending with the budget blueprint — and to report back to the budget committee by Jan. 27.

A Senate vote on the resolution could come next week, with action in the House of Representatives expected to follow. But the repeal process won’t be complete until the committees finish the reconciliation procedure and votes are taken on their work.

“These instructions to committees are provided to facilitate immediate action on repeal, with the intent of sending legislation to the new president’s desk as soon as possible,” the statement from Enzi’s office said.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly vowed during last year’s presidential campaign to repeal Obamacare.

Lawmakers voted Tuesday to retain congressman Paul Ryan as speaker of the House of Representatives, making him a critical player in Congress as Trump prepares to assume the presidency.

House members voted 239 to 189 to re-elect Ryan to the key post over the top Democrat, former speaker Nancy Pelosi. Five lawmakers voted for other figures.

Ryan will lead the incoming two-year session of the House, which opened Tuesday — 17 days before Trump’s inauguration.

“Honored to be elected speaker of the House for the 115th Congress,” Ryan tweeted moments after the roll call result was announced.

The re-election of Ryan, who was the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, marked a triumph for the 46-year-old, who had clashed with Trump during the presidential race and even refused to campaign with the Republican nominee ahead of the November election.

One week after Trump’s upset victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, Ryan insisted he and the Republican House leadership were “on the same page with our president-elect.”

But it had been clear that Ryan was at odds with the billionaire businessman over several policy issues, Trump’s combative tone with adversaries and his remarks about women.

The Republican majority in both the House and Senate is now expected to clear the way for Trump to roll out much of his conservative agenda.

Trump and the Republicans appear to be in broad agreement on a roadmap that includes replacing President Obama’s trademark health care law, building a wall — or fence — on the Mexican border, and slashing taxes.

Republican-led Congress began its first session of the Trump era in turmoil on Tuesday as the House of Representatives backed away from a decision to defang an ethics watchdog after a public outcry, including a dressing-down from the president-elect.

With Trump set to be sworn in as president on Jan. 20, Republicans will control both the White House and Congress for the first time since 2007, and they were set to begin laying plans for enacting his agenda of cutting taxes, repealing Obamacare and rolling back financial and environmental regulations.

But the moment was overshadowed by a surprise move by Republicans in the House of Representatives in a closed-door meeting late on Monday to weaken the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which is in charge of investigating ethics accusations against lawmakers.

Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to “drain the swamp” and bring ethics reforms to Washington, was not pleased.

“With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority,” he said on Twitter on Tuesday.

“Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!”

The ethics office was created in 2008 following several corruption scandals but some lawmakers have charged in recent years that it has been too quick to investigate complaints from outside partisan groups.

Lawmakers wanted to have greater control of the watchdog, and inserted changes into a broader rules package, set to pass when the House convenes on Tuesday.

Even before Trump’s tweet, many House Republicans, including top leaders, opposed the measure and worried about its ramifications. Trump’s tweet prompted an emergency meeting and a quick change of course by Republicans.

“It was taken out by unanimous consent … and the House Ethics Committee will now examine those issues,” said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Since his election on Nov. 8, Trump has made clear he wants to move swiftly to enact proposals he outlined during the campaign such as simplifying the tax code, slashing corporate tax rates and repealing and replacing Obama’s signature health insurance program.

Republicans have long sought to dismantle Obamacare, insisting it was unworkable and hampered job growth. But they face a dilemma over how to provide health insurance for the 13.8 million people enrolled in Obamacare who could lose their coverage. The law aims to provide health insurance to economically disadvantaged people and expand coverage for others.

Trump kept up his attack on Tuesday, tweeting: “People must remember that ObamaCare just doesn’t work, and it is not affordable,” and adding, “It is lousy healthcare.”

Last month Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said in an interview with Kentucky Educational Television that before the election, he assumed Trump did not have a chance of defeating Hillary Clinton and that Democrats would retake control of the Senate, ending any talk of repealing Obamacare.

But following Trump’s win and Republicans retaining their Senate majority, the Republicans find they have to deliver on their campaign promise, even though they have not agreed on a replacement health care program.

McConnell has said his priorities for the new Congress were dealing with the “massive overregulation” he said had been a brake on the U.S. economy and making changes in the tax code to stop companies from moving jobs out of the country.

Republican lawmakers also want to curtail regulations aimed at controlling industrial emissions that contribute to climate change, and roll back banking industry reforms enacted after the near-collapse of Wall Street in 2008.

Republicans might use upcoming spending bills funding government agencies to try to kill some of those regulations. Trump also is expected to try to use his executive powers toward that end.

The first meeting of the 115th Congress will be full of ceremony, as the 435 members of the House of Representatives and a third of the 100-member Senate are sworn in.

Amid the celebration will be a move by House Republicans to clear the decks for Obamacare repeal.

That will come in the form of a vote on rules governing House procedures in the two-year term of the chamber. Tucked into the rules package is a move to prevent Democrats from slowing or stopping Obamacare repeal legislation because of the potential cost to the U.S. Treasury of doing so.

Leading Democrats warned of a fierce battle over Obamacare and said they planned to mobilize grassroots support for it. Obama is scheduled to meet on Wednesday with congressional Democrats to discuss strategies for fending off the Republican attacks on Obamacare.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence said he would meet on Capitol Hill on Wednesday with lawmakers about plans for replacing Obamacare and rolling back other regulations.

Trump’s Cabinet nominees were to begin meeting with senators on Tuesday ahead of Senate confirmation hearings.

The Senate also is expected to receive a Supreme Court nomination from Trump early in his term to replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last February. Republicans refused to consider Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland last year.

Prominent Republican Sen. John McCain has warned that Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for secretary of state, will have to explain his relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who McCain has called a “thug and a murderer.”

Tillerson, who spent much of his career at Exxon Mobil Corp , has been involved in business dealings in Russia and opposed U.S. sanctions against Moscow for its incursion into Crimea.

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