Isakson open to bipartisan health care negotiations -- just don't call it a 'gang'

WASHINGTON – At home in Marietta recovering from a pair of back surgeries, Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson has had a lot of time to watch C-SPAN over the last few weeks.

That’s included following the twists and turns of the House’s since-collapsed effort to replace Obamacare.

In an interview Thursday amid his whirlwind, day-long return to Washington, Isakson said he had been prepared to vote for the House legislation had the proposal made it through to the Senate.

Now that the effort has been shelved, Isakson said he would be willing to join a bipartisan group aimed at improving the current health care system --just don’t call it a “gang.”

“I don’t do gangs,” said the Republican, referring to the popularized term for two-party working groups on Capitol Hill in recent years. “The press has used that as a derogatory term.”

Isakson, a member of the Senate health committee who has developed a reputation on Capitol Hill for being willing to cross the aisle, said he would be open to working with “anybody who wants to contribute to a solution to any problem that we have in the government. And I’m happy to work on the health care situation.”

Even as talks ebb and flow on the House side about reviving the GOP health care bill, Senate Republicans have signaled they’re interested in working with Democrats to help address Obamacare’s biggest problems.

"I think that’s the lesson of last week -- that it needs to be done on a bipartisan basis, and so we’re happy to work on it with Democrats if we can find any who are willing to do so rather than those who just want to stand back and enjoy the show," Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, told Bloomberg earlier this week.

Read moreIsakson makes surprise trip to Washington for Planned Parenthood vote

Even President Donald Trump has said he’d be willing to cut a deal with Democrats – but only after the system created by the Affordable Care Act collapses. Trump expects that will be imminent.

What’s still unclear is whether any Democrats, including those who have indicated they’d be open to changing parts of Obamacare, would be willing to play ball. The implosion of the GOP bill was a major victory for them, and they may be reluctant to hand the GOP an even partial legislative win. On the other hand, rising premiums in some portions of the country could bring people to the negotiating table.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer, the top Democrats in the House and Senate, wrote a letter to Trump Thursday urging him to work with them to improve Obamacare. They indicated they would only be willing to talk if the GOP abandoned its pledge to repeal the law.

"Honoring our responsibility to do no harm, we should take this opportunity to continue to lower costs, improve quality, and expand coverage, while continuing to improve the stability of the marketplaces," the pair wrote.

Isakson said he would particularly be interested in any effort led by his friend Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Senate health committee. The Tennessee Republican said earlier this week that a bipartisan group needed to do something to “stabilize the market for the next three years while we create long-term solutions to the Affordable Care Act.”

“I would work with others together to bring about a coalition to make a change. So if Lamar brought a group together … I’d be happy to work with him,” Isakson said.

More health care coverage: 

Georgia’s lone GOP health care holdout urges leaders to try again

Perdue, Isakson shun the health care spotlight ahead of House nail-biter

After failure of GOP health plan, what’s next?

Georgia to explore Medicaid changes after GOP health plan’s implosion

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that...