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Isakson open to bipartisan health talks as latest repeal effort sputters

WASHINGTON -- Georgia's senior U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson says he is open to resuming bipartisan talks to stabilize Obamacare's health insurance markets as his party's last-ditch effort to replace the 7-year-old law hovers on the verge of collapse.

The three-term Republican indicated on Monday evening that he would still prefer to scrap the Affordable Care Act over the next few days, when the GOP has its last chance to use a special budget tool to repeal the law without any Democrats. But Isakson said he would be willing to back any renewed stabilization negotiations if the legislation known as Graham-Cassidy, which seeks to replace Obamacare with lump sum payments to states, fails.

“If Graham-Cassidy runs into difficulty, hopefully we can come back to Alexander and Patty Murray," he said when asked about recently-stalled talks led by his friend Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Murray, a Washington Democrat. "Stabilizing the market is the most important thing we can do right now for the short-term."

Isakson and his Georgia colleague David Perdue backed those negotiations earlier this month before they were effectively abandoned as the GOP pursued a Hail Mary attempt to repeal Obamacare via Graham-Cassidy.  But while Perdue almost immediately voiced his support for the repeal legislation, Isakson remained tight-lipped even on Monday evening, despite sounding some initial positive notes late last week.

"I’m not going to get specific until I know specifically what I’m dealing with," Isakson said on Monday evening, adding that there were still many tweaks being made to the bill. He did, however, back an earlier version of Graham-Cassidy and has voted for all of the GOP's other Obamacare repeal bills this year, so his vote is not widely considered to be in doubt.

His comments came minutes before Maine Republican Susan Collins declared her firm opposition to the legislation, seemingly providing a deathblow to the effort.

GOP leaders did not immediately announce their next steps -- a vote on Graham-Cassidy had initially been planned for midweek -- but Republican senators are expected to discuss what to do next in a private meeting this afternoon. Isakson told Insider Jim Galloway earlier Monday that he personally planned to meet with Alexander in the near future.

“We’re working on trying to be there when all this falls apart, to be ready to get back up," he told Galloway yesterday afternoon. "Because doing nothing is unacceptable. We’ve got to do something. But it’s got to be right.”

Some Senate Democrats indicated this week that they would be willing to resume Alexander and Murray's talks to trade insurance market stabilization for some flexibility for the states to meet Obamacare's coverage requirements.

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About the Author

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