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Sen. Tom Carper cast as governors’ lobbyist in health care debate

WASHINGTON — When Sen. Tom Carper was shopping for votes to block GOP health care bills, he didn’t just turn to his fellow senators. He turned to their governors.

A self-described “recovering governor,” himself, the Delaware Democrat carried out a communications blitz — calling, texting, emailing — and made contact with up to half of them. He skipped out on a Democratic campaign retreat to make a case at the National Governors Association summer meeting in Rhode Island.

His message: The legislation will hurt your states. Put your opposition in writing so the Senate can pause, work together to stabilize the insurance exchanges, and return to “regular order,” with hearings, bipartisan amendments — and input from governors, he said.

“He came up and spent a morning discussing the ins and outs, the details of health care changes,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, speaking on the same show, said, “Tom Carper from Delaware has been unbelievable in terms of his looking at trying to solve this problem.”

Carper believed that governors’ objections would be key to blocking the GOP effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, and it turned out they were. Even Sen. John McCain of Arizona, one of three Republicans who helped sink the GOP’s last-ditch effort, repeatedly highlighted his governor’s concerns.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York tapped Carper to lead outreach efforts to governors in early July when Carper complained that their voices weren’t being heard. In the health care drama, where there were many players, Democrats’ casting of Carper as the lead governors’ lobbyist made sense. He’s a former NGA chairman who loves the organization (and is prone to gushing about it).

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“Tom Carper was really our point person with the governors, he kind of managed it,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, a former Democratic governor of Virginia. “He played a very important role in all of this. And the governors themselves, their voices were very important.”

Several days before the NGA summer meeting, Carper learned administration officials would discuss GOP health care proposals with the governors and was alarmed to discover that no one was scheduled to present the opposing view. He wangled an invitation to speak on a closed-door panel on July 15 alongside Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price.

“(Carper) was spreading this word that we should do this together, that people shouldn’t be hurt who are not in a position of being able to help themselves,” Kasich, an opponent of the GOP health care bills, said in an interview with USA TODAY. “And it was a message of slow down and let’s get this right. At no time did he ever say we should do nothing.”

After that, Carper kept contact information for every governor by his side, calling them during free moments between hearings and meetings. They discussed how the legislation would impact states’ Medicaid expansions, for example, or how a straight repeal of Obamacare would impact the states.

When he couldn’t reach Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, he said he talked several times to his Medicaid director and to his chief of staff. He said he spoke with Kasich “a dozen times or more.”

“One night he called me and it was like 10:30 at night,” Kasich said. “He was relentless in terms of what he did. And do I think he made a difference? I have no doubt that he did. Did he switch anybody? You don’t know. Did he have some people that would have not voted for this had McCain not voted ‘no,’ I just can’t tell you. But he deserves a lot of credit for being a really good public servant, keeping in mind the people that he serves.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, joined by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, speaks during a news conference at the National Press Club on June 27, 2017, about Republican health care legislation. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster, AP)

Carper said his outreach efforts helped him develop trust with governors “and just to let them know if they are interested in finding a path forward, they have a number of Democratic senators … who want to find common ground.”

Three days after Carper’s pitch at the NGA meeting, Kasich, Hickenlooper and nine other bipartisan governors who had been vocal about their concerns issued a statement opposing efforts to repeal the current system and replace it later. The statement, which Kasich said had been in the works for a while, called for governors to be included in the next steps.

“The best next step is for both parties to come together and do what we can all agree on: fix our unstable insurance markets,” they wrote.

They may be getting their wish, and so may Carper.

After the GOP’s legislative failures, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee announced it would begin hearings in September on ways to stabilize the individual health insurance market. The committee will hear from a wide range of stakeholders, including governors.

Moving forward, Carper said “the stage has been set” for better, more affordable health care coverage. Though he isn’t on the HELP Committee, he believes he can play a role in bipartisan discussions on health care.

“The key now is for the Senate to do its job,” Carper said.

Contributing: Eliza Collins

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