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Maryland Democrats resist latest Obamacare repeal effort

Four Democratic members of the state's congressional delegation told voters gathered at a town hall meeting in Baltimore on Thursday that they will continue to push back on Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare, including a new plan expected in coming days.

"I don't know that we're going to be able to avoid to fight this every single month," said Rep. John Sarbanes of Baltimore County, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "I pledge to you [that] we're going to fight as hard as we can."

The four Democratic lawmakers — Sen. Chris Van Hollen as well as Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Sarbanes, all of whom represent at least a portion of Baltimore City — met with about 600 voters who turned out at the War Memorial Building.

The town hall, which also touched on immigration, education and criminal justice, came as lawmakers are preparing to head back to Washington next week for an uncertain few days. Congress must pass a funding bill by the end of the week to avoid a government shutdown. Republicans, meanwhile, are divided over whether to also take vote on a revised Obamacare replacement bill.

"It is going to be very much an ongoing battle," Van Hollen told participants at the event, which was organized by Indivisible Baltimore. "The fight to save Medicaid is a very real one, and not one that we can think has gone away just because we won round one."

The White House and some congressional Republicans are optimistic that the House could vote on a health care bill as soon as next week. But while a compromise between conservative and moderate Republicans appears to be developing, lawmakers have yet to see bill text.

"We'll see what happens, but this is a great bill," President Donald Trump said at a press conference Thursday. "We have a good chance of getting it soon. I'd like to say next week, but it will be — I believe we will get it...whether it's next week or shortly thereafter."

Trump also expressed a desire to avoid a government shutdown, but his administration has become more vocal in recent days about its desire to pursue funding for a border wall with Mexico — a nonstarter for Democrats, who note that Trump had repeatedly promised Mexico would pay for the wall.

Republicans may need some Democrats to vote for a funding bill if conservatives hold together to oppose it.

The Baltimore-area Democrats faced a relatively friendly crowd at the meeting, agreed on virtually every answer and stuck to the party line on issues such as opposing Republican budget cuts and efforts to increase immigration enforcement.

All four said they opposed allowing insurance companies to charge more for patients with pre-existing conditions, an idea that has emerged in recent days as a potential element of the new health care bill.

"As far as this pre-existing condition situation is concerned, ain't happening," said Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who mentioned his recent meeting at the White House with Trump. "We're going to continue to fight. These fights are going to be some tough ones."  

Republican lawmakers appeared to be closing in on agreement that would retain so-called essential health benefits — such as a requirement that insurers cover maternity care — but allow individual states to opt out of those mandates. Conservatives believe eliminating the requirements will lower premiums, while liberals are concerned that doing away with them will allow insurers to offer plans that don't cover much.

But it's not clear Republicans are on the same page about how to move forward with repealing Obamacare, despite running on the issue in four election cycles. The more Republicans pursue provisions to appeal to conservatives in the Freedom Caucus, the more they risk losing votes from centrists Republicans.

Democrats are unlikely to support any measure that undermines Obamacare.

House Speaker Paul Ryan was noncommittal this week about the prospects of getting a vote on health care in the next few days.

"It's difficult to do. We're very close," Ryan said, according to the Associated Press. "It's just going to take us a little time."

Liberal groups have turned out at similar town halls in Maryland to pressure Democrats into supporting a Medicare-for-all style of health care. While the idea of a health care system run entirely by the government has been adopted in many countries, there is no support for it among Republicans in control of Washington.

The groups specifically pressed Ruppersberger to support legislation that would create such a system. The Baltimore County congressman has said he backs the general idea, but has concerns about how such a system would be paid for. Cummings and Sarbanes are both co-sponsors of the bill.

"Right now my highest priority is to deal with Obamacare," Ruppersberger said. "As far as the concept of what you're talking about, that's fine. But I'm an appropriator, too, and I think we need a lot more work to find out if we can move forward with respect to that philosophy.

"When you're looking at legislation, it's important to make sure that we know how we can implement it," Ruppersberger said. "I will keep an open mind."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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