WASHINGTON — Moderate senators from both parties met Monday to explore whether they can work on bipartisan legislation overhauling the nation’s health care system.
The evening session came as Republican senators have begun closed-door meetings aimed at crafting a GOP bill scuttling much of President Barack Obama’s health care law.
With the political stakes high over health care, there seems little chance that a band of moderates from both parties would produce a package that will become the Senate’s chief bill, at least until Republicans have exhausted efforts to produce their own legislation.
But Monday’s meeting underscored that Democratic and Republican centrists consider it important to show home-state voters that they are seeking middle ground and are not using the issue to score partisan points.
There are already divisions between conservatives and GOP moderates over what their party’s bill should look like, with the two factions clashing over issues including Medicaid cuts. Republican leaders are hoping to produce a consensus GOP bill by this summer.
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Bill Cassidy, R-La., were organizers of Monday’s meeting. Attendees included several other Republicans plus three Democrats: Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly.
Collins told reporters the meeting was aimed at trying to “get away from the partisanship that has made it very difficult to come up with solutions.”
In January, Collins and Cassidy introduced legislation that would give states the option of retaining Obama’s law. As an alternative, states could enroll people in low-cost, high-deductible plans or let them purchase more expensive policies.
Cassidy said the bill he sponsored with Collins would be “a good place to start,” but said senators were open to other ideas.
An aide to one Democrat who attended the session said the lawmakers discussed health care ideas in “broad strokes.”
Manchin, Donnelly and Heitkamp all face re-election next year in states that Donald Trump easily carried in last November’s presidential voting.
Republicans have long pledged to repeal Obama’s 2010 statute and replace it with GOP policy prescriptions. The legislation is one of President Donald Trump’s top priorities, and the party has little interest in easily abandoning its effort to show voters they are addressing their promise.
For their part, Democrats have refused to engage in talks with Republicans unless the GOP drops its repeal mantra and agrees to work toward adjustments in Obama’s statute. Democratic leaders are in no rush to help Republicans in their drive to dismantle Obama’s overhaul, which has fared poorly in public opinion surveys.
With unanimous Democratic opposition expected, Republicans holding a 52-48 Senate majority would lose if just three GOP senators oppose their party’s plans. If they secure 50 Republican votes, the bill would pass because Vice President Mike Pence would break the tie.
Collins and Cassidy said they expected the bipartisan lawmakers to meet again.
Associated Press reporter Erica Werner contributed to this report.