McConnell On the Ropes. For Now.

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. listens at left as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, following their meeting with President Donald Trump inside. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

I wanted to start the morning with a brief update on the latest developments with the Republican Senate’s drive to pass Trumpcare.

For the last several days I’ve been saying that I thought it was much more likely than not that McConnell would succeed in passing the Trumpcare bill this week, even as I said over the weekend that McConnell was running into more turbulence than I’d expected. Yesterday evening the tide turned. The odds of passing the bill this week now seem stacked against McConnell. This is a critical breakthrough for the opponents of the bill and the 22-24 million people who stand to lose their health care coverage. But so far it’s only a limited and temporary victory if it even happens, which is no sure thing.

Let’s run through the key developments.

On Friday you’ll remember Sen. Heller of Nevada came out against the bill. I said this was positioning, not real opposition. I stick to that, though on rereading Heller’s statement I think I understated in my Friday write-up how deep he’d dug himself in. In any case, that at least moved Heller into a contingent opposition to the bill.

Yesterday, we had the CBO report which posited a total of 22 million people losing their coverage over ten years – one million down from the second House bill and two million down from the first. The headline, though, was that 15 million lose coverage next year. Like 2018, in advance of the mid-term election. As I’ve said, we don’t need these CBO scores to tell us the basic story, which is that the coverage gains achieved by Obamacare are lost by repealing it. (This doesn’t even get to the massive out-year cuts to Medicaid and various loss of protections for additional millions.) But this was a bad headline for McConnell. And it came after a weekend when public protests had pushed three broad groupings of Republicans not into opposition but onto the sidelines, waiting to see who would go first in pledging support.

Two things happened last night in the immediate aftermath of the CBO Report. Senators Paul and Collins both announced they opposed the current bill and would vote against the motion to proceed. This requires a little translation. The ‘motion to proceed’ is the Senate vote which allows the senate to proceed to debate and vote on the actual bill. Nothing is ever certain. As I’ve said, parties find ways to get things done things in which they have invested their entire partisan identity. And yes there’s The Iron Rule of GOP Politics: The Moderates Always Cave. But put simply, this is the kind of statement you make when you are really voting against the bill. Indeed, this is voting to prevent it from even coming to a vote. Paul is balking from the right, the bill isn’t terrible enough. But the upshot is the same. That’s three no votes. That brings McConnell’s total down to 49 votes, which is not enough for passage. (With 50 votes, Pence can break a tie.)

As we’ve noted in recent posts, no one wants to go first. No one wants to be isolated in a situation like this. So the announced ‘nos’ of these three senators have made the finger in the wind types even more balky. Last night, Sen. Johnson who is probably more confused than strategic was himself threatening to vote against that motion to proceed. He’ll cave quickly, if McConnell gets the votes and tells him to cave. But his comments were a good measure of the wind finger in the wind types were feeling last night. The rest of them still want to get to yes. But they want McConnell to prove to them that it is going to happen and that there will be safety in numbers.

So where does this leave the bill? As much as I think McConnell’s norm-breaking has been calamitous for the country, he’s a great legislative tactician. No one should underestimate him. That said, I think the odds are now against him in passing this bill this week. He now has to focus on cutting side-deals with Sentors, ponying up big chunks of money for different states, to get to 50 senators. At the moment it seems like he’ll need to focus not on the three mentioned above but others who aren’t formally opposed – Murkowski, Capito, others looking for small bumps in Medicaid spending or money for the opioid epidemic. So McConnell has his work cut out for him just getting close, not getting to a win. There’s no limit on what McConnell can accomplish with fidgety GOP senators and a huge pile of money. I’m just not sure he has enough time. My best guess is that McConnell can’t do that and get one of the three to flip in time for a vote this week.

That is not saying it won’t happen, only that the odds are against it.

That alone is a big victory for the opposition. Senators will go home for the July 4th recess and probably get hit with even more opposition and protest. It will only get harder to make this happen in July. But as we saw in the House, controlling the calendar, working in the background can achieve what seems unachievable.

My best guess is that McConnell won’t be able to do this in time for this week. They’ll take a lot of bad press for having ‘failed’. They’ll go to ground for a while, rejigger the calendar and come back at this at some point over the coming weeks. Then it will be a battle all over again. As we saw in the House, the amount of partisan inertia and pressure to repeal Obamacare, on almost any terms, and get that tax cut is immense. They won’t give up even after it seems like it proved impossible.

All that said, if McConnell can’t get this done and has to bust his deadline, that is as big a victory as the opposition could have expected and it will be a big one. This was never going to be easy or quick. It was barely going to be possible to prevent McConnell from doing this. It’s going to be a long series of pitched battles. Opponents of Trumpcare will need to fight this over and over. But it now seems possible they win this first fight. If they do, it’s a big big deal.

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