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White House drama threatens to upstage health care efforts

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has led attempts to bring a health care bill up for a vote.

J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has led attempts to bring a health care bill up for a vote.

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans want to start act two in the Affordable Care Act overhaul saga, but they’re in danger of getting upstaged by the unfolding White House drama.

The latest twist had the Justice Department naming Wednesday night former FBI director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to investigate Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections and alleged links between aides to President Trump and the Kremlin. That news came one day after a bombshell report that Trump told then FBI director James B. Comey that he hoped Comey would let go of the bureau’s investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

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Oh, and then there was the scoop Wednesday night in which House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said in June that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Vladimir Putin. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, swore those in attendance to secrecy, according to a taped conversation heard by the Washington Post (a House GOP leadership aide, after initially denying the reports, said the whole exchange was ‘‘clearly an attempt at humor”).

But what is most concerning is how all of this affects health care. Does it make Senate negotiations easier or harder? On one hand, nothing else can gain any oxygen with the happenings on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. But on the other, a little less of the spotlight could help intransigent lawmakers come to terms on the thorniest legislative issue before them.

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Senate Republicans are driving hard toward coming up with their own proposal to replace much of the Affordable Care Act. The Senate Finance Committee is currently drafting several different versions of a health care bill, with the goal of having a menu for moderate and conservative senators to chew over and decide where they might be able to compromise.

Republicans met Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to specifically discuss insurance premiums and how to stabilize the individual market in 2018 and during a transition away from the Affordable Care Act.

‘‘Health care discussions are open to the entire caucus — everyone has an opportunity to be at the table as members work to get a consensus to rescue Americans from a health care law that is currently in collapse,’’ a Senate Republican aide said in an interview.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pretty determined to ultimately hold a vote on a health care bill, members, aides, and lobbyists have told the Post. Dissension among the Republican ranks would have to be virtually insurmountable to deter McConnell from his quest to bring legislation to the floor, allowing Republicans to say they’ve fulfilled their Affordable Care Act repeal promises.

But as Republicans try to accelerate toward some kind of credible measure, the Trump controversies are getting in the way. On Wednesday, members insisted they can keep moving forward on health care and other policy goals. But many admit White House blunders are dampening the entire effort, especially as lawmakers fear what new, troubling news report could be coming next.

‘‘I think policy initiatives are sort of parked right now until we get the Comey thing dealt with,’’ said Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said the Senate is ‘‘certainly able to handle more than one issue at a time’’ but acknowledged news surfacing in rapid succession about Trump makes things harder.

‘‘We’ve been discussing health care in lunches and private meetings and so that work continues, but obviously as there’s new revelations every day coming in the press concerning the White House, it makes it more difficult for us to pursue an agenda here,’’ she said.

Trump did contribute in a very general way to the health care bill the House passed last month. He put major pressure on Ryan to get it done after an initial legislative meltdown in March and dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to the Hillon multiple occasions to sweet talk conservatives in the Freedom Caucus.

But the president doesn’t have a great track record on legislation overall, and particularly health care. He was mostly ineffective as the House struggled toward consensus and even aggravated tensions with some ill-timed and misinformed tweets.

So it was already highly questionable whether the president would have been helpful at all in bringing senators together on tricky questions of how quickly to phase out Medicaid expansion (or whether to do so at all), how to structure insurance subsidies, and how much of the ACA’s insurance regulations to try to repeal.

‘‘We’re working on it as a Senate, not working with the president,’’ said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican.

Other Republicans worry the high drama is distracting Americans from the efforts to replace the Affordable Care Act, especially at a time when marketplace insurers are again seeking big rate hikes for next year. Senator Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, said senators are focusing on health care in ‘‘nearly every meeting’’ lately, but fears that’s getting lost on the public.

‘‘That really gets waylaid by the day-to-day issue of the hour,’’ Rounds said.

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