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Senate Republicans turn the page on Obamacare repeal efforts

Senate Republicans are giving up on their one-sided effort to repeal Obamacare for now, just days after their attempts to dismantle the 2010 health care law collapsed.

Many have their eyes on the exit door for the August recess, which House members already left for last Friday. As for what's next on the agenda, many are angling to shift toward bipartisan health care discussions, as well as other priorities like tax reform.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, made no mention of health care in his floor speeches Monday or Tuesday, signaling that his party's energy should be focused on other items of their agenda.

"I think it's pretty obvious that our problem on health care was not the Democrats," McConnell told reporters Tuesday. "We didn't have 50 Republicans."

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, turned toward the other side of the aisle on the Senate floor Tuesday to "ask them what their suggestions are" on health care.

"I think, frankly, bipartisan solutions tend to be more durable," he admitted, adding that Congress should focus on overhauling the tax code and repairing the nation's crumbling infrastructure.

President Trump, however, has been urging Senate Republicans to keep moving forward on health care. He tweeted on Sunday, "Don't give up Republican Senators, the World is watching: Repeal & Replace...and go to 51 votes (nuke option), get Cross State Lines & more." He also threatened to end cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments that the government issues to insurance companies in order to lower deductibles and out-of-pocket costs.

Democrats quickly criticized the move. "These payments are critical to keeping health care costs down and keeping the markets stable," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, on the Senate floor on Tuesday. "Make no mistake: by refusing these payments, President Trump is sabotaging our health care system. He's actively trying to make it collapse, taking out his political loss on the American people."

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee, said Tuesday that he has urged the president to continue CSR payments through September. The committee, he announced, will hold bipartisan hearings the week of September 4 on actions Congress should take to stabilize the strengthen the individual health insurance market. Some of the witnesses, he said, would include insurance commissioners, patients, insurance companies and governors.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Tuesday that Republicans should have held bipartisan hearings from the beginning and she issued a message for the administration on CSRs: "It's absolutely essential that the cost-sharing reductions be continued and when I hear them described as an insurance company bailout, that is just not an accurate description. The reason that we have CSRs is to help low-income people who earn only between 100 and 250 percent of the poverty rate afford their out of pocket costs and that seems to be lost in the debate."

There's more chatter, meanwhile, about bipartisan health care fixes. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said Monday, "There are groups of us getting together on a bipartisan basis trying to forge a way forward. Nothing that will be done this week. But I think longer term. The immediate goal has to be stabilizing and supporting the exchanges so that the insurance continues to be available."

While the House passed a plan to repeal and replace Obamacare in early May, a group of Democrats and Republicans in the House released a plan Monday to help stabilize the individual health insurance market. The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus said 43 members have signed onto the plan, which would aim to bring CSR payments under congressional oversight, create a stability fund to help states reduce premiums, adjust the employer mandate by exempting smaller firms, repeal the medical device tax and provide guidelines to states that want to enter into regional compacts or alter their exchanges.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, has developed a proposal with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, to repeal Obamacare's individual mandate and provide a flexible block grants to send money to states. Cassidy met at the White House Tuesday with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, and Republican governors from Wisconsin, Arizona, Mississippi and Arkansas. He said it can get traction if the Senate moves "beyond partisan politics."

Other GOP senators, meanwhile, are frustrated that their party has hit a dead end. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, says he hopes the president makes some changes to the law unilaterally.

"So I'm hoping that President Trump will move forward with doing some of this by executive action," he said.

"I don't think we should quit," said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota. "We have to recognize that there are people out there who are seeing huge increases in their premiums and in some cases, they're not going to see a market at all. We can't simply give up. We have to find solutions."

While they lost their momentum, McConnell said Tuesday that Senate Republicans still have a legislative vehicle if they want to return to the health care law, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is still scoring proposals from Cassidy, Graham and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Even if Republicans wanted to revive their repeal effort again, they likely won't be able to do that for a while. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who helped kill their pursuit of a repeal last week, is back in Arizona to undergo chemotherapy and radiation for brain cancer. Without McCain's support, it would be very hard to pass any repeal bill due to the GOP's slim majority. 

"I'm not saying that we will return to it immediately because we've got a lot of other work to do," Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, said about repeal efforts. "I think the sentiment among the Republican members of the Senate, the sentiment seems to be -- okay, we couldn't put it together, but we will circle back and try again."

As for tax reform, McConnell said that Republicans will take it up when lawmakers return to Washington after Labor Day. He said they'll have to use budget reconciliation to pass a bill, which would make the legislation subject to only a majority vote rather than a supermajority. 

CBS News' John Nolen, Catherine Reynolds and Emily Tillett contributed to this report.

  • Rebecca Shabad

    Rebecca Shabad is a video reporter for CBS News Digital.