Hickenlooper comments on health care process show some of disconnect between parties

DENVER – Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s bipartisan push to block congressional Republicans’ efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act reached a fever pitch Tuesday morning at a news conference he held with Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, just hours before the Senate majority announced it would delay a vote on its version of the health care bill because it didn’t have the votes to bring it to the floor.

There was some question about whether Hickenlooper and Colorado's Republican senator, Cory Gardner, had even talked about the bill earlier Tuesday after Hickenlooper made comments hinting that they hadn't talked at a National Press Club news conference Tuesday morning.

But later in the day, Hickenlooper told the New York Times Gardner called him "literally 30 seconds" after he left the joint press conference. “He clearly responded the moment he heard such a comment,” Hickenlooper told The Times. A spokesman for Gardner's office says staffers from the two offices have been in communication for weeks about the health care bill.

Hickenlooper and Kasich were among a group of seven governors—both Republicans and Democrats—who sent a letter on June 16 to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., criticizing the House-passed health care bill, the American Health Care Act.

The governors all hailed from states that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, bringing Medicaid coverage to millions of people in their states.

In the letter, the governors criticized the bill for failing to provide resources for people on Medicaid and other people with low incomes or serious pre-existing medical conditions.

And last Monday, Hickenlooper on Kasich went on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 to further criticize the Republican efforts in the Senate and House to pass a new health care bill, keying in on what both called a lack of transparency in the bill-crafting process.

“To think that a small number of one party is going to come up with the right solutions is kind of crazy,” Hickenlooper told Cooper. Kasich said that Republicans needed to do more reaching out to Democrats to help craft the bill.

“If you don’t, it’s not sustainable and the next administration is going to overturn this, and we never get to the issue of what’s driving up health care costs,” Kasich said at the time.

Over the weekend and into Monday, governors from Nevada, Virginia and Massachusetts all asked their senators to slow the move toward a vote ahead of the July 4 holiday that McConnell had pressed for. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., was among the first Republicans to outright say he would vote against even taking the Senate bill to the floor for discussions, keying off attacks from conservative organizations.

And Hickenlooper and Kasich have both noted in recent interviews, including one with the New York Times, that their discussions with other governors and senators from both parties have been ongoing.

Then, on Tuesday, Hickenlooper and Kasich held a joint news conference at the National Press Club on the health care bill, which at the time had been scheduled for a vote later this week.

Hickenlooper and Kasich both called the bill called the bill “unacceptable,” and Kasich again said that he believes Republicans and Democrats can get together and find some ways to fix the Affordable Care Act without kicking millions off of insurance, as both the House and Senate bills do.

Hickenlooper hadn’t talked with Gardner this morning, but has now

Since Hickenlooper and Kasich have both spent the past two weeks in an outreach effort to Republican and Democratic senators, a reporter at the National Press Club conference asked Hickenlooper about his discussions with Gardner, Colorado’s Republican junior senator who has had crosshairs on his back from Democrats and health care groups in Colorado for months regarding the changes to the Affordable Care Act.

Some were surprised when Hickenlooper said at the time he hadn’t talked to Gardner at all about the bill as of Tuesday morning.

“I haven’t,” Hickenlooper said.

“I will, by hook or by crook, get ahold of him before there is any vote,” Hickenlooper added. “I will go camp out on his doorstep if I have to.”

But that was about as far as Hickenlooper went in on Gardner, as he spent several minutes talking about Gardner’s experience and, in so many words, discussing how the Senate’s health care bill will likely hurt the part of the state Gardner hails from.

“He is someone who is a very conservative Republican, but he also doesn’t think being a conservative Republican means putting hundreds of thousands at risk, which is what this bill, just in Colorado [would do]—millions in the country,” Hickenlooper said of Gardner, according to video and transcripts from CSPAN.

“[Gardner] knows what I’m going to say. This is the question, again, in your DNA—if you are in this game for the right reasons…We are all going to finish these jobs, look back five or 10 years from now, and I think you should want to be proud of the decisions you made. You made the decisions of what’s right in the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and not just campaign promises.”

But Hickenlooper said he was hopeful that Gardner would be working with Democrats on the effort to fix the ACA in the future.

“I think Cory Gardner has the courage,” Hickenlooper said. “I’m very hopeful and he certainly knows, and I’ve had other people talk about how important this is to me. I think this is one of the bedrock issues he will define himself by.”

“He’s a smart, talented guy, but he understands the hardships and difficulties of rural life,” Hickenlooper continued. “This bill would punish people in rural Colorado…Cory Gardner gets that. He understands rural hardships. We will see.”

Spokesman says Gardner’s been in “frequent” contact with Hickenlooper, Bennet

And though Hickenlooper hinted at the news conference Tuesday morning he had yet to talk to Gardner, his press office confirmed that the two spoke after the meeting before Hickenlooper headed back to Colorado. The contents of their conversation were not disclosed.

(Editor's note: The New York Times has since added a paragraph in its story about Hickenlooper's statement saying Gardner called Hickenlooper "literally 30 seconds" after he left the joint press conference. “He clearly responded the moment he heard such a comment,” Hickenlooper told The Times.)

But Gardner’s camp maintains that he has been in “frequent” contact with Hickenlooper and Colorado’s Democratic Senator, Michael Bennet and that their staffs have been working together on health care policy in recent weeks.

“Senator Gardner is in frequent communication with Senator Bennet and the governor’s administration on a variety of issues important for Colorado,” spokesman Casey Contres said.

Again saying that the ACA was “imploding” – something that Gardner has continually claimed over the past several years – Contres said that “Senator Gardner has made clear that we must bring relief to Coloradans who are negatively impacted” by the ACA.

“The Senate needs to work together to produce a bill that will rescue Americans from the Affordable Care Act and taking more time to get it right for the people of Colorado is a good decision.”

One longtime Democratic Senate aide told Denver7 Tuesday that “it would be pretty much unheard of for the governor of a state to not meet with a senator,” adding that senators from both parties often meet with state officials from opposing parties to craft legislation for the state. The aide also said they believed that this instance had more to do with the issue of health care than partisanship.

Bennet, meanwhile, agreed that Congress should work together to improve the ACA, though he disagreed that the current House or Senate versions of the new health care bill did either.

“The more Americans learn about this bill, the more appalled they become,” Bennet said. “Continuing a partisan process to secure more votes isn’t going to fix this fundamentally flawed bill. We should start over and work together to improve the Affordable Care Act and reform our health care system.”

He also put together a Twitter Moment in response to McConnell's statement that Democrats were "not interested in participating" in health care talks, showing the times he asked for more discussion.

Gardner has been particularly targeted over the lack of transparency in the Senate’s bill-crafting process. He told Denver7 in an interview before the bill was released last Friday that he hadn’t seen a text version of it despite being part of the working groups made up of a handful of Republicans helping craft the bill.

He is also chairs the NRCC, the fundraising arm of the Senate GOP and helps bring in millions of dollars for his Republican Senate colleagues to campaign with.

His past statements, as a senator, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and as a state representative, have also come back to bite him, in some cases.

In February, Gardner himself said, “It’s important to me that this debate be open and that the American people see what’s happening and taking place,” according to a transcript from HuffPost. “I think as this committee hearings and legislation is being drafted, it’s not going to be something behind closed doors. Everybody is going to be a part of it.”

On Jan. 5, 2010, as the deliberations on the ACA were ongoing, Gardner tweeted, “Dems set to exclude GOP during final health care deliberations, says CNN. Isn’t it time for real leadership?”

In August 2009, then a state House member, Gardner and the NRCC sent a press release out saying Gardner would be hosting town halls in then-Congresswoman Betsy Markey’s district since she wasn’t doing them herself.

Protesters from Atlantis ADAPT again took to Gardner’s Colorado offices on Tuesday to stage sit-ins in protest of his supposed support for the bill and lack of in-person town hall meetings (He has held several telephone town halls in recent months). Police showed up to the Denver office, though after several hours, police left without removing the protesters, who say they will stay at the office through the night.

President Donald Trump met with some Republican senators, including Gardner, Tuesday to try and shore up the bill before it was yanked for the time being. McConnell and others said they hope to have an agreement by Friday on a new version of the bill, which they hope to vote on after the break and ahead of the August recess.

Monday’s Congressional Budget Office analysis on the Senate’s version found the bill would leave 22 million fewer people with insurance by 2026 when compared to an ACA that was left as-is, causing more concern from some of the Republicans who forced the delay of the vote.

Gardner’s spokesperson, Contres, told Denver7 Monday the senator was “continuing to speak with constituents, healthcare professionals, and his colleagues about the legislation.”

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