The Senate GOP’s Obamacare repeal effort overcame a major procedural hurdle Tuesday – but there remained no clear plan for what the final legislation would look like or whether it could win support to pass.
The 51-50 vote – Vice President Mike Pence broke the tie – on what is called a motion to proceed opened debate on a yet-to-be-determined repeal bill. It was a dramatic inflection point in Republicans’ struggle to act on a major campaign promise.
After Obamacare repeal looked all but dead in the Senate, several GOP moderates softened or reversed their positions, clearing the way for the effort to continue. They included Sens. Dean Heller (R-NV), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Rob Portman (R-OH).
Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) were the only two Republican no votes on the motion. All the Democrats opposed the motion.
The final gavel on the vote was delayed as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), recently diagnosed with brain cancer, flew back to Washington from Arizona. He cast the 49th yes vote.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) delayed casting his vote, for reasons that were not immediately clear. He was engaged in an extended conversation with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the floor as the vote was pending, before casting the 50th yes vote.
The plan emerging in the hours before the successful vote was for the Senate to vote in the days to come on competing repeal-and-replace plans which lack the votes for passage, before ultimately landing on what is unfortunately being termed “skinny repeal.” The idea is to pass the barest of repeal bills through the Senate in hopes of sending the repeal effort to a conference committee with the House-passed replacement bill, where a final deal can be hashed.
The fact that Senate Republicans sought to move forward with the Obamacare repeal effort without a robust replacement plan, or even a comprehensive repeal bill, ready to pass comes after months of frenzied negotiations that fell short this week. For seven years Republicans ran on repealing and-replacing the Affordable Care Act during which they never settled on a consensus replacement. The disagreements on health care reform that divide the GOP conference had not been solved when Senate Republicans voted Tuesday to move forward anyway.
They will now move onto a few days of floor debate on the effort that will also bring a series of votes on amendments related to the yet-to-be-determined health care bill.
That Republicans would subject themselves to this politically ugly process that may fail in the end reflects the immense pressure GOP senators were under from President Trump and conservative groups not to abandon what appeared to be a doomed effort just a few days ago.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) made a surprise trip to Washington, D.C. after being diagnosed with brain cancer to participate in Tuesday’s vote. The step lawmakers took Tuesday to advance the effort was remarkable considering how much is in flux and unknown about a bill that would affect tens of millions of people’s health coverage and overhaul one-sixth of the U.S. economy.
Even for process that has been riddled with broken norms, secrecy and haste, Tuesday’s vote took to the next level the extremes Republicans will go to move forward with their repeal effort.
A week ago, the Senate repeal measure looked dead. Enough GOP senators had come out against the replacement bill, the Better Care Reconciliation Act, that Republicans had been working on to prevent it from passing. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that senators would vote on a version of 2015 repeal-and-delay vote again — an announcement that was quickly met with enough GOP defections to make that approach dead in the water as well.
GOP leaders kept members in the dark of what bill they would be voting to proceed to in the hours before they voted Tuesday. The “skinny repeal” that emerged as a possible plan Tuesday morning would be a narrow set of repeal proposals that Republicans mostly agree on. If it became law, it would almost certainly torpedo the individual market in some places and make worse the health care problems Republicans complained about under Obamacare.
By the end of this week, Republicans will likely get to vote on whether they are willing to pass that option out of Senate to keep the repeal dreams alive for the next legislative step.