Politico: If McConnell can't win Portman, he can't win the Senate on health care

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, pauses for a reporter's question as he arrives at a closed-door GOP strategy session on the Republican health care overhaul. (AP Photo/Politico)
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Amy Eddings: It's Morning Edition on 90.3, WCPN.  I'm Amy Eddings.  A clash between Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman and Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is showing how intense the battle is on Capital Hill, as McConnelll seeks to round up enough votes to pass the Senate Republicans' health care plan.  Politico says if McConnell cannot win Portman's vote, there's no way Senate Republicans will be able to repeal Obamacare.  The co-author of that story, Seung Min Kim, joins us now from Washington.  Good morning, Seung Min.

Good morning, thanks for having me.

Eddings: Thank you for joining us this morning.  Portman and McConnell are close allies, as you and your colleageu John Bresnahan reported, and are not prone to mudslinging.  So what happened last week at this closed door GOP strategy session?   

Kim: It was an intense moment begtween these two normal allies and they disagreed.  Mitch McConnell and his aides were largely the drafters of the Senate Republicans' health care plan released last week.  But Sen. Portman has been very vocal and has raised concerns about what repealing Obamacare would do to Medicaid expansion in his state.  So the closed door dispute was really about that.  McConnell basically told Portman, 'Look, you used to be OMB director, you ovefrsaw issues of entitlement reform.  His implication was that Portman had changed his stance from when he worked in the White House.  Sen. Portman shot back saying, 'That's not true.'  But it really illustrated just how personal this Obamacare repeal has become.

Eddings: Of course, as you mentioned, Portman was Office of Management and Budget director under President George W. Bush.  Portman is caught between loyality to Mitch mcconnell and a popular fellow Republican, Gov. John Kasich, who opposes the health care bill's Medicaid cuts.  Why is Kasich a factor?  He's a lame duck.

Kim: He is, but he is still the governor of Ohio, clearly.  And you're seeing, kind of, the outsize influence Republican governors are having in the health care debate because they can nudge the senators and say, 'Look, this is the impact this is going to have on the state and this is how it hurts.'  I think the most vivid example of this is Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who essentially said,  'If this isn't good for Gov. Brian Sandoval, the very popular governor of Nevada, then I'm not going to support it.'   The dynamic isn't as intense with Sen. Portman and Gov. Kasich, but Gov. Kasich has been very vocal.  He's on the national Sunday talk shows saying this bill is not good.  He's also saying the opioid funding in this legislation is basically spitting in the ocean, and obviously there is a major crisis in Ohio.  And these words, this public pressure, is clearly making the decision harder for Portman.

Eddings: What do you mean when you say there's no way Sen. Republicans will be able to repeal Obamacare if Senators like Portman can't get on board?

Kim:  Basically, it's because there are 52 Republican senators and under the rules the Republicans are using to pass the health care measure, they can only lose two votes.  If you look at Republican senators in tiers, if you lost Portman that means you very likely lost senators like Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, senators who've shared similar concerns.  Some of these senators have been meeting regularly to talk about the effects of  repealing the Affordable Care Act on the Medicaid expansion in their states.  So that is a pretty big bloc of votes.  Sen. Portman doesn't control these votes.  But he definitely has the same concerns as these large bloc of votes.  So if you can only lose two, and there's this big group out there that has a lot of the same worries as Sen. Portman, that's a problem.  And that doesn't even get into the problems with the other end of the Republican spectrum: conservatives who feel that the bill doesn't go far enough to dismantling Obamacare.

Eddings: Portman has said he could get behind a slower Medicaid expansion defunding.  Is that all he wants for his vote?

Kim: No, Medicaid is one of the major factors.  however, he has said opioid funding is a major issue.  Late last week, the republican leaders added about $45 million in extra funding.  Sen. Portman says that's still  not enough.

Eddings: Seung Min Kim is a reporter for Politico.  Thanks so much for joining us and enjoy your holiday.

Kim: Thanks for having me.

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