Senate Republicans defend absence of women in health care working group

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Members of the main Senate Republican group on health care legislation responded Tuesday to criticism that they are insufficiently including Republican women, but some of the least concerned members were Senate Republican women themselves.

While the group’s 13 senators have only met a handful of times and there are several smaller clusters of lawmakers discussing particular aspects of an Obamacare replacement, the “working group” has emerged over the past week as the most organized gathering of Republicans in the higher chamber.

According to several Senate Republicans involved in the group, the meetings started informally between six members and gradually expanded to include most of the Senate Republican leadership and the three chairmen of the committees with oversight over health care policy. But while the group does include members with disparate priorities in terms of an Obamacare alternative, it is homogeneous in terms of gender.

Some Democrats have pounced on the gender disparity, including Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, who tweeted Friday, "It matters to have women at the table -- and it matters when they aren’t."

On his way into a Tuesday meeting of the working group on Medicaid, Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, one of the Senate leadership members who was a later addition to the group, said he expected the five women in the Senate Republican conference to have “lots of input” in the health care bill drafting process.

Asked why, then, there were no women involved as full members of the core group, Thune responded, “Well, I don’t make that decision.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, one of the five Senate Republican women, did, in fact, join the Tuesday meeting, representing one of the states that accepted the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid.

But she dismissed the notion that she was missing a seat at the table by not being a full member of the group.

“We’ve got a lot of working groups. They invited me to talk about Medicaid,” she said, noting she had just come from another meeting of other lawmakers from states that accepted the Medicaid expansion, which is one of the key sticking points for many Senate Republicans who want to change the House’s abrupt cutoff date for adding coverage under the expansion.

While some Senate lawmakers sought to downplay the official status of the working group, and therefore the meaning behind an all-male health care panel, the White House apparently sought, at least for a moment Tuesday, to manage those optics, according to a pair of tweets from a CNN reporter.

The reporter added in a second tweet that the official also said, “You’ll see those optics addressed.”

But not only did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, reject the notion that women were underrepresented in his chamber’s debate, he also downplayed the importance of the working group, which many Republican members and aides have described as a central nexus for health care discussions in the Senate so far.

"There is no particular working group because we're meeting every day,” McConnell told reporters after his conference’s weekly policy luncheon. “Everybody’s at the table.”

In fact, three of the five Senate Republican women ABC News spoke to Tuesday, including Capito, indicated that they thought concerns over their absence on the panel were overblown.

"I'm not really troubled by it," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said, saying she's having plenty of her own conversations, particularly with Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, on an Obamacare replacement bill they already wrote together.

"I'm not concerned about who is on or off any kind of committee," Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Nebraska, said. "Leadership has always been good in the conference in not just being open to every senator speaking but also in soliciting comments as well."

A spokesperson for Capito confirmed she was not a full member of the working group after Tuesday’s meeting and after the tweets about the administration official’s comments. None of the other four Senate women responded to requests for comment.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer also added during his daily briefing that he was not aware of the administration having asked for women to be put on the working group. He did express support for a variety of voices being represented on the working group but said the White House isn't going to "tell McConnell how to conduct a panel."

The White House certainly isn’t instructing senators on how to communicate the absence of women on the panel, with its members coming up with a variety of responses when asked to address it.

For his part, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, one of the original members who began informal discussions with five of his colleagues, launched Monday into a criticism of Democrats not wanting to be a part of the health care talks, when asked about the lack of women in the working group.

“All 52 Republicans and indeed Democrats who wanted to be part of the process would be welcome; right now the Democratic Party has adopted a strategy of massive resistance and massive opposition,” Cruz said.

He added that health care reform talks will “necessarily” include a variety of constituencies.

“This process necessarily is going to include the input and views of everyone in the conference -- women, men, geographically across the country,” he said Monday.