Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell championed a renewed push to bypass a filibuster and repeal Obamacare with 51 votes on Tuesday, he announced in a joint statement with Utah Senator Mike Lee, one of the most conservative Republicans in the chamber.
"Republicans are united in working to repeal the broken promises of Obamacare," McConnell said in the statement, adding that the Senate will "continue our effort to use reconciliation ... to fulfill the promise we made to our constituents."
Lee, who has often been at odds with McConnell, has long advocated using Senate procedures to try and kill the president's health care law. "A Senate vote to repeal Obamacare on a simple majority basis through reconciliation is the best way to pursue that goal," Lee said in the statement. "The Majority Leader and I are committed to using reconciliation to repeal Obamacare in the 114th Congress."
The gambit is unlikely to succeed due to procedural roadblocks in the Senate, and even if Congress were to pass a full repeal bill President Barack Obama is guaranteed to veto it. But the issue is a flashpoint in the Republican presidential race, where candidates are facing questions about how far they'd go to repeal the health care law.
Heritage Action, a conservative activist group, contends that Obamacare can be eliminated through reconciliation. A memo by the group released Tuesday said the process would serve as a "trial run" for a potential Republican presidency. "More importantly," the memo said, "it will reaffirm the Republican-controlled Congress's commitment to sending a bill repealing Obamacare to the president's desk in 2017—when it will hopefully be signed into law."
Under "reconciliation," the Senate may bypass the 60-vote threshold and make changes to the federal budget with 51 votes. The problem is that many parts of the Affordable Care Act aren't budgetary and will likely be ruled ineligible for repeal by the chair under reconciliation, Senate experts including Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute have said.
So, what happens next?
One option is that Republicans adhere to the limits and repeal as much of Obamacare as they can—taxes and spending provisions that construct critical components of the law would qualify. Democrats would vote no, but there are 54 Republicans, likely enough to pass a bill that substantially guts the health care law.
"We will repeal all the parts of Obamacare that we can under reconciliation," North Dakota Senator John Hoeven, a Republican, told Bloomberg. "I don't think we can get everything, but as much as we can get through reconciliation we will do. But the problem will be that the president will veto it."
Don Stewart, McConnell's deputy chief of staff, said that "as Sen. McConnell has said repeatedly all year, reconciliation provides the tools necessary to end Obamacare. You can’t get at every little piece, but the big parts are tax and spend." He said McConnell has acknowledged that there are "limits" to what can be done under reconciliation.
The second option is for Republicans to move to overrule the chair's ruling, a rare move that would require 51 votes to pull off and effectively change a longstanding rule. This appears unlikely. As even Lee, who had been pushing to repeal Obamacare even if it means altering some rules, is now steering clear of this option.
"This joint statement has nothing to do with appealing to the chair," Lee spokesman Conn Carroll said. "Lee agreed to abandon that appeal last night in exchange for this recommitment from McConnell to repeal Obamacare through reconciliation."
The ongoing push reveals that Republicans remain devoted to undoing Obamacare, even as some 17 million people have gained health insurance coverage under the law, according to a May estimate by the RAND Corporation.