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Hogan balks at repeal-only plan, saying it would leave millions without coverage

For months, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has mostly avoided the political storm raging in the nation’s capital, skirting questions about President Donald Trump and the policy changes his new administration has embraced.

But on health care, Hogan appears to be finding his voice.

For the second time in as many months, the centrist Republican governor who has eschewed national politics weighed in directly about his party’s faltering efforts to repeal Obamacare — arguing Tuesday that the latest push by Senate leaders could leave millions without insurance.

“The Senate should immediately reject efforts to ‘repeal’ the current system and replace [it] sometime later,” Hogan and 10 other governors — Democrats and Republicans — said in a joint statement.

“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.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday floated the idea of repealing Obamacare without a replacement plan. The governors’ statement, signed by five Republicans, five Democrats and one independent, was released minutes after it became clear the “repeal-and-delay” strategy did not have enough support to advance in the Senate.

McConnell still said he intends to schedule a vote on repeal next week, even though it’s expected to fail.

Hogan, who is up for reelection next year in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one, has had to approach Trump and his administration’s policies carefully. The governor has said he did not vote for the president, but he has since mostly refrained from commenting on Trump’s policies by noting they stood little chance of approval.

In late June, the Hogan administration struck a more forceful tone by publicly opposing the first draft of the health care bill released by Senate Republicans. A spokeswoman at the time told The Baltimore Sun that the governor thought Congress should “go back to the drawing board.”

Weeks earlier, Hogan pushed back on Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord. A spokeswoman said then that was “not an action the governor would have taken.”

Though the statements are relatively mild — especially in context of the heated rhetoric now pervasive in Washington — it remains uncommon for Republicans to confront Trump publicly.

“Hogan's past reluctance to comment on Trump never restricted him from commenting in the future — and that is what we are seeing now,” said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College.

“Hogan is no longer the long-shot, novice he once was. He is a politically savvy, popular governor, who isn't reactionary — he weighs the costs and benefits of every political choice,” Kromer said. “And, healthcare is the easy choice: Most Americans are against the repeal and I suspect that opposition is even higher in Maryland.”

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said there was little new to the statement Tuesday. The governor, he said, has been speaking out on health care since January.

“From the beginning the governor has made it very clear that… there’s an answer in the middle, a solution in the middle and that’s what the governor has been pushing for and that’s what he called for again today,” Mayer said.

Hogan has been vocal in his opposition to proposed Medicaid cuts — the state stands to lose billions in federal funding under the various GOP proposals. But many of his comments earlier in the year were broad and did not directly take a position on individual iterations of the health care legislation.

In an interview with the Carroll County Times in May, Hogan predicted the House-approved legislation had “no chance of… passing in the Senate, so it's a lot of kind of hyperventilating over something that might never happen.”

The political landscape is tricky for Hogan. Trump lost Maryland by more than 26 points last year, but polls show the president remains popular with Republicans overall. Criticize Trump too much and Hogan risks alienating the GOP base he still needs.

But if he appears too cozy with the White House, that could turn off centrist Democrats and independents that polls show are increasingly breaking with the president.

State Democrats, eager to pin Hogan to the president to drag down his high popularity ahead of next year's election, described the governor’s statement Tuesday as a “stunt.”

"Like a typical politician, Governor Hogan waited until the 11th hour when support for Trumpcare collapsed so that he could avoid taking a real stand on protecting Marylanders' health care," Maryland Democratic Party spokesman Bryan Lesswing said in a statement. "Hogan ran out the clock, and that is exactly what you'd expect of a politician."

There are also policy implications for Hogan on health care. His administration almost certainly would have to answer for changes made at the federal level. Deep reductions to federal funding of Medicaid, for instance, would force states like Maryland to make difficult decisions on whether to raise taxes, cut spending or reduce enrollment.

Meanwhile, insurers offering coverage through the health care marketplace set up in Maryland under Obamacare are seeking another round of large premium increases — hikes that the companies say are necessary partly because of uncertainty in Washington.

If those insurance markets collapse on their own or through a repeal, constituents could wind up looking to Hogan and other state leaders for solutions.

In addition to Hogan, the statement Tuesday was signed by the governors of Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia.

For his part, Trump blasted Democrats on Tuesday for the lack of progress on health care and repeated his threat to allow Obamacare to cave in on its own.

“I’ve been saying for a very long time, let Obamacare fail and then everybody is going to have to come together and fix it,” Trump said. “I'm not going to own it. I can tell you the Republicans are not going to own it. We'll let Obamacare fail and then the Democrats are going to come to us.”

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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