Senate nearing end of health care debate period, preparing for a long night of votes

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Senate has entered the home stretch of the dramatic debate to overhaul Obamacare, with lawmakers bracing for what could be a long and grueling marathon series of votes that extends well into the night and morning.

And the text of the GOP plan -- a so-called "skinny bill" that rolls back Obamacare's individual and employer mandates -- remains unseen by senators or the public, although it was discussed during a closed-door lunch. The idea would be to get to a conference with the House, where GOP leaders would continue negotiations in hope of reaching a bill that can provide a long-awaited legislative victory to President Donald Trump.

Multiple sources say Senate Republican leaders are circulating an outline, with a selling point that it amounts to "repealing the pillars of Obamacare -- the mandates."

The outline, according to two sources who have viewed it, proposes: Repealing the individual mandate, repealing the employer mandate for a minimum of six years, providing greater flexibility to the states through the 1332 waiver, and defunding Planned Parenthood, directing those funds to Community Health Centers.

The Republican Party's ongoing efforts to pass legislation to weaken the Affordable Care Act is expected to culminate in the famous Senate process known as vote-a-rama, in which senators can introduce an unlimited number of amendments -- often for the purpose of driving home a political point and forcing colleagues in the other party to cast uncomfortable votes.

President Donald Trump urged Republicans Thursday morning to get something passed.

"Come on Republican Senators, you can do it on Healthcare. After 7 years, this is your chance to shine! Don't let the American people down!" he tweeted.

"Let's finish our work," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged his colleagues from the Senate floor shortly after the Senate gaveled into session for a session that likely won't conclude until early Friday morning. "Let's not allow this opportunity to slip by. We've made important progress already, we can build on it now. The moment before us is one many of us have waited for and talked about for a very long time."

Throughout the week, Democratic aides said they were fully prepared to flood the zone. The ultimate goal will be "to make this process so painful that voting 'no' on the final proposal will be the only thing that provides relief for them," was one aide's blunt outlook.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, blasted the possibility of an early-morning vote.

"It appears that the Republican leader has a last-ditch plan waiting in the wings," Murray said on the floor. "As soon as they have an official score from the CBO, which could be hours from now, in the dead of night, Sen. McConnell will bring forward legislation that Democrats, patients and families, and even many Senate Republicans, have not seen and try to pass it before anyone can so much as blink."

No matter what, senators are ready for an all-nighter.

"I brought my pillow," said Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana. I don't think they let you sleep on the Senate floor -- but you can sleep in the hall if you need to."

Prospects of conference with House

While the idea in the Senate is to advance to a conference with the House, there was concern among lawmakers Thursday that that could not happen, with the House passing the Senate bill and going right to the President.

"I want to see this move to a conference committee...as long as we get the assurances that it's going to go to conference, that's the critical thing for me," said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota.

Asked what those assurances would be, Rounds wouldn't go into detail but said he feels "better about it now than before we went in (to the lunch.)"

Rep. Mark Meadows, leader of the House Freedom Caucus, the group of conservatives who can help pass or sink a health care bill in the House, says he doesn't like a skinny-only plan.

"Am I gonna send a skinny health care plan to the President for him to sign? The answer is absolutely not," Meadows told reporters.

House Speaker Paul Ryan dodged a question about whether the "skinny" plan would fulfill the Republican party's pledge to roll back Obamacare, telling reporters "I am going to reserve judgment until I see what the Senate actually produces."

But Ryan left the door open for the House acting on whatever emerges from the Senate, saying, "extending our session is obviously an option we are considering."

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, who notably held his vote on the floor until he engaged in a lengthy back and forth with McConnell on Tuesday, wants a conference, telling CNN he has concerns about simply sending the "skinny" bill to the House and President.

But he said at the end of the day there's no controlling what the House will do. "We can't impose our will on the House," Johnson said.

Threat to Murkowski?

But leadership's careful maneuvering -- a "high wire act," Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranked Republican chamber called it Wednesday -- came as the Trump administration was pursuing a different tact, according to a report in the Alaska Dispatch News.

According to that report, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and informed them that Murkowski's opposition to the vote Tuesday to start debate "put Alaska's future with the administration in jeopardy."

Murkowski chairs the panel that's jurisdiction includes oversight of the Interior Department -- and Zinke.

The other Republican who voted against Tuesday's motion, Maine's Susan Collins, said she has not heard from the White House since that vote.

Asked directly if she's received any threats from the White House, Collins said, "No."