WASHINGTON — Two new Senators were sworn in on Capitol Hill on Wednesday — Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) — shaving the Republican majority in the upper chamber to 51-49.
Jones replaces former Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican whom President Trump tapped as his attorney general last year, and is the first Democrat to fill the seat since 1992. (Republican appointee Luther Strange held Sessions’ seat prior to the special election.)
Jones’ surprise win could force the Senate’s GOP leadership to rethink its priorities on healthcare.
In July, it took only three Republican “no” votes to sink the party’s repeal efforts.
Jones won his seat in a special election on Dec. 13, beating Republican Roy Moore, who was accused of sexually assaulting teenage girls.
Jones on Healthcare
A former federal prosecutor, Jones is known for his role in convicting the Ku Klux Klan members involved in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, according to the Washington Post.
His website sums up his healthcare agenda in four words: “We can’t go backward.” He supports the Affordable Care Act but acknowledges it “needs improvement.”
Repealing the ACA is out of the question, he says. Beyond causing millions of people to go without health insurance, repeal would force many rural hospitals to close, noting on his website that five rural hospitals have been shuttered in Alabama since 2010. Jones also suggests that a stronger Medicaid program can save them.
As for future healthcare-focused legislation, Jones would oppose “any proposal that does not protect Alabamians from rising healthcare costs, higher premiums, and out-of-pocket expenses, while ensuring those with preexisting conditions cannot be denied coverage or charged more,” according to his website.
He also supports the so-called “birth control mandate,” a contraceptive coverage requirement under the ACA that President Trump sought to roll back in October in order to allow employers to refuse such coverage for moral or religious reasons.
“No woman should be denied coverage of services based on the religious beliefs of her employer,” Jones’ website noted.
In an interview with AL.com in November, Jones clarified that he wants to keep Alabama’s current laws on abortion as they are and that he would not support late-term abortions.
“To be clear, I fully support a woman’s freedom to choose to what happens to her own body,” he said. “Having said that, the law for decades has been that late-term procedures are generally restricted except in the case of medical necessity. That’s what I support.”
Regarding what’s becoming a liberal litmus test, Jones told NBC‘s Meet the Press, “I’m not there on universal healthcare … I want to make sure that we shore up our healthcare system and I’m going to be looking at all the options, but I’m just not there on universal Medicare.”
He suggested, however, “I do favor a public option.”
Smith’s Approach to Healthcare
Smith served as Lieutenant Governor to Gov. Mark Dayton (D) and was appointed by him as interim replacement for Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who officially resigned on Tuesday after allegations of sexual misconduct emerged last year, The Hill reported. A special election will be held in November to fill the remainder of Franken’s term, which ends in 2020.
Before serving as Lieutenant Governor, she was Dayton’s chief of staff, and she’s a member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer Labor Party.
Notably, Smith served as vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota from 2003 to 2006, according to her LinkedIn Account.
Smith earned a bachelor’s degree at Stanford University and an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire.
In a brief speech in which she accepted the appointment as Senator in mid-December, Smith made one oblique mention of healthcare.
“Minnesota has more people with health insurance than almost any other state, yet I have talked to farmers who have lost access to their longtime doctors and can’t afford their health insurance premiums,” she said.
At a town hall in November, Smith lobbied for a public option in Minnesota. Her vision involved allowing anyone to buy into insurance through MinnesotaCare, a state-run program for low-income beneficiaries.
She told Minnesota Public Radio that a public option would give more than 100,000 Minnesotans who depend on the individual market an affordable option.
“Our goal here is to make sure as many Minnesotans as possible have access to affordable care and quality care,” Smith added.
“This is a pay-your-own-way strategy,” Smith said. “It would cost tax payers we estimate … about $12 million, and that is for the set-up costs … but then after that, people who are buying MinnesotaCare … would pay the entire cost of their care in their premiums and their deductibles.”
While some physicians criticized the proposal, citing MinnesotaCare’s lower reimbursement rates, Smith argued that those could be revised to match Medicare’s own rates, NPR reported.
Until recently, Smith chaired the Destination Medical Center, a 20-year public-private partnership with the Mayo Clinic.
“The project is meant to help the famed hospital expand its Rochester base with a blend of private investment and taxpayer-funded infrastructure expansion,” she told CBS Minnesota.
Initially, rumors circulated that Smith would be a “caretaker” senator, serving only until a replacement could be elected, NPR reported, but Smith made plain in her acceptance speech that she would indeed be running in the November special election.
Michele Bachmann, a Republican and former member of the House, told The Jim Bakker Show on Dec. 27 that she was also considering a run for Franken’s seat, according to The Hill.