McConnell promises women can take part in healthcare meetings

McConnell promises women can take part in healthcare meetings
© Greg Nash

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellMore than 300 abuse victim support groups oppose GOP healthcare bill Dem lawmaker: GOP healthcare battle is like the Titantic Behind closed doors, tensions in the GOP MORE (R-Ky.) has provided assurance to GOP colleagues that women will be invited to attend future meetings of a special working group tasked with negotiating healthcare reform.

The assurances made in private, backed up by a public statement earlier in the week, have quelled concern in the GOP conference that the rollout of the working group would be derailed by controversy over gender politics.

McConnell invited three female Republican senators to attend a Tuesday meeting of the working group, which Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Moore CapitoOvernight Healthcare: Senate delays ObamaCare vote past recess | Trump says GOP 'very close' to deal | Three more senators come out against bill Three more GOP senators announce opposition to healthcare bill Senate GOP delays ObamaCare repeal vote past recess MORE (R-W.Va.), a lawmaker concerned about Medicaid cuts, attended.

A Thursday working group meeting was attended by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who is worried about Iowa’s last major ObamaCare insurer threatening to pull out of the state market.

“The leader has assured us that at least one of the women will attend all of the meetings going forward,” said one GOP lawmaker.

Several Senate Republican sources say that McConnell told colleagues at a lunch meeting this week that any senator who wants to attend the working group’s sessions are welcome to come.

“He basically told the lunch that everyone in the caucus was invited,” said one member of the working group. “He told the lunch that everyone in the caucus, including the women, can come.” 

Another GOP senator, who requested anonymity to avoid the appearance of second-guessing leadership, said female colleagues “need to be” included in future meetings.

McConnell told reporters Tuesday that no one in his conference would be left out.

“Nobody’s being excluded based upon gender,” he said after Democrats criticized him for not initially including any women in the 13-member healthcare working group. 

GOP senators on Thursday said every effort will be made to include women going forward but cautioned that their participation would be left up to them.

There are five women in the Senate Republican Conference — Capito, Ernst, Susan CollinsSusan CollinsOvernight Finance: GOP divided over welfare cuts in budget | Lawmaker loses M on pharma stock he pitched | Yellen says another financial crisis unlikely in our lifetimes Overnight Tech: EU hits Google with record fine | Amazon gears up for lobbying battle | Facebook hits 2 billion users | New ransomware spreads across globe Overnight Regulation: EPA moves to repeal Obama water rule | Labor chief to review overtime rule | Record fine for Google MORE (R-Maine), Deb FischerDeb FischerIvanka Trump turns to House GOP on paid family leave GOP senators pleased with Ivanka Trump meeting on family leave, child tax credits McCain threatens to block Trump's deputy Defense nominee MORE (R-Neb.) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiTrump: Senate GOP 'very close' to agreement on health bill EPA head faces skeptical senators on budget cuts Cruz, McConnell huddle with healthcare vote looming MORE (R-Alaska) — so it could be tough to guarantee gender diversity at every meeting, GOP sources cautioned. 

“I don’t know that we can all guarantee that. We all have schedules that change,” said Ernst, who explained she arrived a bit late to Thursday’s meeting because she had “other obligations.”

Fischer said she hopes to attend as well, but it “depends on what the topic is going to be specifically within healthcare.”

Democrats have attacked the House-passed American Health Care Act as cutting benefits disproportionately for women. They note that the so-called essential health benefits mandated by ObamaCare include women’s health services and that more women than men are on Medicaid, the healthcare program for the poor that was expanded by the law.

Republicans hope the clarification about who can attend the meetings will put an end to the criticism they’ve received from Democrats and the media over membership in the working group.

“To not have women in the smaller group that we know is making many of the real decisions is a very, very bad thing. They are more than half the population,” Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles SchumerSenate Dems step up protests ahead of ObamaCare repeal vote Senate Dems plan floor protest ahead of ObamaCare repeal vote Dem senator: Don't bet against McConnell on ObamaCare repeal MORE (N.Y.) told reporters earlier in the week.

Schumer delivered his remarks moments after McConnell was grilled by two female reporters at the Tuesday stakeout for not formally naming any women to the working group.

Growing exasperated, McConnell told the throng of journalists, “You know, you need to write about what’s actually happening, and we’re having a discussion about the real issues. Everybody’s at the table.”

But when pressed further, he did not explicitly promise that women would participate in future meetings of the group.

“There is no particular working group because we’re meeting every day,” he said. “The group that counts, all 52 of us, have lunch every day, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.” 

One Senate GOP aide said that women in the Republican conference don’t want to be included in meetings just because they are women and generally resent the implication that they’re needed to fill some sort of quota. 

But another GOP aide quipped that it was another example of their party bungling a rollout this year, acknowledging that not formally including a woman was a “bad optic.”

Democratic women in the Senate slammed their Republican colleagues as being tone deaf.

Sen. Debbie StabenowDebbie StabenowSenate Dem: 'We've got to stop the administration from sabotaging the private insurance market' No certainty on cost-sharing payments to insurers Dems express concerns about Trump's proposed rural development cuts MORE (Mich.), a member of the Democratic leadership team, said “one of the biggest targets for Republicans has been eliminating preventative care for women and maternity care and so having no woman there is stunning.” 

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen Jeanne ShaheenDems push for more action on power grid cybersecurity Senate overwhelmingly passes Russia sanctions deal Russia sanctions deal clears key Senate hurdle MORE (N.H.) called it a “huge oversight and very disappointing given how much of the healthcare legislation affects women.”

“Women are very often the people in the family who deal with healthcare issues for the rest of the family,” she added. 

“It’s just a mistake; they should bring them in,” said Sen. Jon TesterJon TesterOvernight Regulation: Labor groups fear rollback of Obama worker protection rule | Trump regs czar advances in Senate | New FCC enforcement chief Trump's 'regulatory czar' advances in Senate Gianforte causes stir after becoming newest House member MORE (D-Mont.), who faces reelection next year in a state President Trump won by double digits.