CHARLES CITY, Iowa (AP) — Republican Sen. Joni Ernst said Thursday she isn't sure her party's last-ditch effort to repeal Barack Obama's health care law has the votes to pass, as she faced tough questions from Iowa constituents about the political drive for the measure.
"If it's brought up, I hope we have the votes to pass it," Ernst told reporters after a meeting with constituents in northern Iowa. "I hope there's consensus on the bill."
"And if it fails, it fails," she said, with hint of resignation in her voice, though looking ahead to tax legislation and dealing with the status of immigrants brought to the United States as children and living here illegally.
Republican leaders hope to push the latest GOP health care bill through the Senate next week. Ernst said she is leaning toward voting for the measure, which would undo the central pillars of Obama's 2010 law, and replace them with block grants to the states so they could make their own health care coverage rules.
The bill would let states set their own coverage requirements, allow insurers to boost prices on people with serious medical conditions, end Obama's mandates that most Americans buy insurance and that companies offer coverage to workers, and cut and reshape Medicaid.
Ernst spent an hour in a small-town high school auditorium fielding questions and protests from constituents concerned about the GOP bill.
"It seems like it's a political push right now," John Shupe of Charles City told Ernst. "I would just urge you to vote 'no' on this and go back and work with Democrats."
Shupe's observation reflected comments made by Ernst's Iowa colleague, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who said Wednesday, "I could give you maybe 10 reasons why this bill shouldn't be considered, but Republicans campaigned on this so often that we have a responsibility to carry out what you said in the campaign."
Grassley also said he doubted the bill had the requisite 50 votes to pass. The GOP-controlled Senate has until Sept. 30 to pass it on a simple majority, when special rules preventing a Democratic filibuster will expire. Vice President Mike Pence would be called to vote for the bill in the event of a 50-50 tie.
Ernst had been part of a bipartisan group led by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state that had aimed for finding a limited short-term plan to stabilize insurance premiums.
And while Ernst said she had been encouraged by the talks, she blamed Democrats for refusing to bargain in good faith. "They were misleading the public," Ernst said. Murray had disputed similar claims, alleging GOP leaders "decided to freeze this bipartisan approach."
Although the hour-long meeting was civil, Patrick McDermott told Ernst he was frustrated that she was blaming Democrats, when her party holds the majority.
"You can't continually blame the Democrats," McDermott of Charles City said. "Show your backbone."
Not all the comments were on health care. Kerry Shupe said she was "really concerned about the tweets," referring to President Donald Trump's regular unscripted posts. Asked about Trump's recent retweet of a doctored video seemingly of Trump striking Democrat Hillary Clinton with a golf ball, Ernst said, "That's not appropriate."
Many in the audience of more than 100 complained that the bill would put people with pre-existing medical conditions at risk. Ernst had said in May that the law's protection for people with existing medical conditions was "the one thing we can keep."
She argued Thursday the bill being discussed would protect such people by allowing states to create high-risk patient pools. "That's why I point out state innovation."
"They would have to prove to the HHS secretary that not only is it accessible to those with preexisting conditions, but it remains affordable," she said.
The bill does say that coverage must remain "adequate and affordable" for those with pre-existing conditions. But because those terms are not defined, critics fear that insurers could jack up prices beyond many people's ability to pay.