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McConnell tells AP he's skeptical of trying to repeal Obamacare again

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The top Senate Republican is skeptical at best about revisiting the Senate's botched efforts to dismantle Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, despite one GOP lawmaker's insistence the health care law will be scrapped.

In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pointed out that the GOP-controlled Senate was "unable to go forward with 52 Republican senators. Whether it's possible to go forward with 51 Republican senators is an open question." Republicans have lost a seat with the election of Alabama Democrat Doug Jones. 

The six-term Kentucky lawmaker's comments came about the same time the government indicated the law remains viable. About 8.8 million people signed up for coverage next year as a deadline surge last week appeared to account for the surprisingly strong numbers.

The president's commitment to repealing the law is also not as certain as it once was. Just a day earlier, President Trump — who campaigned on repealing his predecessor's signature law — proclaimed that the GOP tax bill "essentially repealed Obamacare." But the tax overhaul only repealed the health law's fines on people who don't carry health insurance, starting in 2019. It technically speaking didn't even eliminate the individual mandate, which is still on the books — just the penalties for it. 

But senior administration officials who refused to speak on the record in a call about the president's first-year accomplishments on Thursday did not seem too keen on pursuing appeal legislatively. One unnamed senior official said "there are other ways to do" Obamacare replacement. The official said the president is still "committed" to Americans who lost their health care under the ACA. But the senior administration officials did not commit to revisiting the matter legislatively in 2018. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, has vowed to fight on no matter what.

"To those who believe - including Senate Republican leadership — that in 2018 there will not be another effort to repeal and replace Obamacare — you are sadly mistaken," Graham said. "By eliminating the individual mandate in the tax bill we have pulled one of the pillars of Obamacare out. But by no means has Obamacare been repealed or replaced."

Graham added: "I look forward to working with President Trump, our House and Senate Republican leadership, and the private sector to make repeal and replace of Obamacare a reality in 2018. It will be a difficult task but failure is not an option."

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, also said repeal of the health care law was still on the agenda.

"The president, Lindsey Graham and Mark Meadows are consistent on this: We are working forward to try to lower health care premiums for everybody. Until we've lowered them we're not successful," Meadows said.

McConnell was likely being pragmatic, Meadows said, but with "health insurance premiums going up each and every day, inaction is not an option. We've got to find a way to bring those premiums down."

In the AP interview, McConnell didn't share the ardor of House Speaker Paul Ryan to take on federal benefit programs like welfare and food stamps. McConnell said that unless Democrats buy in on cutting benefit programs "we'll not be doing entitlement reform." Some have suggested entitlement reform will be a challenge for Republicans in a midterm election year.

Asked whether he's relieved that divisive Alabama Republican Roy Moore won't be coming to the Senate even though his loss in a special election cost the GOP a seat, McConnell said, "I think you know the answer to that." McConnell opposed Moore in the primary and called upon him to step aside when allegations emerged that Moore, in his 30s, had molested teenage girls four decades ago.

McConnell has had his share of conflicts, mostly in private, with the Trump administration. And he recognizes that Mr. Trump's unpopularity is making next year's midterm election landscape treacherous for Republicans. But he said he's pleased with the results, despite the failure to repeal and replace the health care law.

"It's been an incredible year. We've moved the Supreme Court right of center for a generation. We've confirmed 12 circuit judges," McConnell said. "And now we've done comprehensive tax reform for the first time in 31 years, which also takes the underpinning of Obamacare out, eliminating the individual mandate tax."

Nursing a cold over a cup of hot tea, McConnell told the AP in the interview in his Capitol office that he's taking some comfort in a map of open Senate seats that's tilted in Republicans' favor.

"The history of off-year elections is not great, but it helps to have races in places where you're most competitive," he said." The party out of the White House often posts significant wins in midterm elections.

Democrats had a good map last year, however, and McConnell noted that Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was doing interviews before last year's election to talk about his agenda under a Hillary Clinton administration. That didn't pan out for Schumer, whose bid to become majority leader was thwarted by Mr. Trump's upset win and Senate losses.

"He called me the day before the election and said he hoped we'd have a high level of cooperation," McConnell recalled. "I called him back the day after the election and said, 'I sure hope so.'"

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