Days after ending a turbulent Supreme Court confirmation fight, the Senate turned back to health care — with a battle squarely aimed at coloring next month's crucial elections for control of Congress.
In a return to its characteristically more unruffled mode of work, the Senate on Wednesday rejected a Democratic attempt to stop President Donald Trump from expanding access to short-term health care plans, which offer lower costs but skimpier coverage. It was clear Democrats would lose, and a real victory was never feasible since the measure would have died anyway in the Republican-run House.
But by pushing ahead, Democrats made Republicans cast a health care vote that Democrats could wield in campaign ads for next month's midterm elections, in which they hope to topple the GOP's 51-49 Senate majority. The vote was also aimed at refocusing people away from the Senate's nasty battle over confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, which both sides say has transformed indifferent conservative voters into motivated ones — for now.
Wednesday's vote was about showing whether Congress will "allow insurance companies to scam Americans with cut-rate health insurance," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "I wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of that vote."
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado insisted it was actually the Democrats who had done themselves no favors with the vote.
"Look, if they want to take away people's health insurance and that's what they're campaigning on for the next several weeks, I think it's a losing strategy," said Gardner, who heads the Senate GOP's campaign organization.
Using regulations, Trump has moved to let people buy short-term insurance that could last one year — and up to three years if renewed. President Barack Obama's health care law, which Trump and Republicans have weakened but failed to repeal, created more limited versions of those plans, lasting up to just three months. The policies are for people who don't get coverage at work.
The administration says premiums for the new short-term plans will be around one-third the cost of comprehensive coverage that Obama's law requires. Republicans have promoted them as a low-cost option for strapped consumers after years of steadily rising premiums, which they blame on Obama's law, and GOP candidates will be happy to use Wednesday's vote to make that point.
"It's not surprising that Senate Democrats are fighting to take away people's choices on health care, to drive up premiums," said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who's facing a surprisingly robust re-election challenge from Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke.
Unlike Obama's statute, the new policies don't require coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. The government has estimated those people number from 50 million to 130 million, making them a potent political talking point for Democrats. The short-term insurance also doesn't have to cover a menu of services like prescription drugs and could cap beneficiaries' benefits. Democrats call the plans "junk insurance" because, they say, the policies will leave unwary consumers purchasing dangerously meager packages.
"Anyone who supports coverage for people with pre-existing conditions should oppose Trump's "expansion of these junk insurance plans," said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who is running for re-election and introduced the Democratic measure.
On its face, Wednesday's fight was over repealing Trump's new rules. But practically speaking, it served to renew attention on the overall issue of health care, which polling shows ranks at the top of the public's priorities and has been a major concern for voters for over a decade.
It also comes as campaign operatives assess whether the Kavanaugh battle will overshadow what has been shaping up as a voters' referendum on Trump, colored by candidates' views on health care and the economy.
Both sides' consultants say initial polling shows newfound enthusiasm among conservatives, who until the court fight were far less excited about voting than their liberal, anti-Trump counterparts. The big question, they agree, is whether conservative enthusiasm will last until Nov. 6 or fade away, victim to the historic pattern of midterm congressional losses by the party holding the White House and the ever-changing parade of distracting controversies prevalent under Trump.
Lawmakers from both parties are putting the best face on voters' mood.
"Whatever difference in enthusiasm Republican voters may have had going into the fall elections has been eliminated," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters.
"Kavanaugh's in the rear-view mirror," said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who spends weekends campaigning and is expected to be easily re-elected next month. "What people are asking me about is health care."
The Democratic effort to block Trump's short-term plans lost 50-50, with legislation needing a majority to pass. They forced the vote under a seldom-used procedure that makes it easier for lawmakers to try repealing recent federal regulations.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the only lawmaker to join the other side in the vote, complained that the plans could deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, voted against the Democratic proposal, saying people in her high-cost state could benefit from the low-cost option.
Collins and Murkowski helped defeat Trump's effort to repeal Obama's law last year.
Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.