Our team is going to be going all out this week to bring you every latest detail on the fight over Trumpcare and Obamacare repeal in the Senate. What’s happening. What it means. What to watch for. But I wanted to to start the week by just giving you my own sense of where things stand, based on years of watching and thinking about high-profile legislative battles.
First, I think McConnell will be able to pass this bill. But I am considerably less sure about that than I was even late last week. They are having more trouble than I expected them to be having. So for people spending all their time making phone calls and pulling out all the stops, it’s working. I think it’s still an uphill fight. But it is clearly having an effect. And these things are cumulative. The less certain a McConnell win is, the less power he has to make it happen. The aura of inevitability is his greatest asset.
There are many ways to think about the different factions right now in the Senate GOP caucus. But here’s the one that seems most instructive to me. First you have four or five holdouts (I think of them as very soft hold outs) from the right: Paul, Cruz, Lee, et al. With the possible exception of Paul, I highly doubt that anyone of them will allow themselves to be the vote that kills this. What they will do is push to make it harsher and position themselves for purity celebrations if it’s going down the tubes anyway.
Then you have a small number of ‘moderates’ who have long been seen as the contenders for the two free passes McConnell can give out to GOP senators to vote against the bill: Heller, Collins, possibly Murkowski.
There’s now also a third much more amorphous group of senators who aren’t really ‘moderates’ in any meaningful sense but are also not ideological diehards and for various reasons are exposed to the impact that Trumpcare might have in their states. For now, that hesitation is being expressed largely in process terms – that the bill shouldn’t be rushed to a vote this week. One key person here is Sen. Cassidy of Louisiana. He made a great play earlier this year of refusing to support any repeal bill that harmed current beneficiaries. He then seemed willing to sign on to anything McConnell came up with. But now he seems to be hesitating.
We should take it as a given that every senator in the GOP caucus who is expressing hesitation is playing for time, positioning, looking for a way to get to Yes, probably with minor changes to the bill. In this case, getting to Yes means either voting yes or in two cases voting no with McConnell’s permission. (McConnell can let two senators do that and still pass the bill.) So each is playing for time and hoping to get to Yes but on a more fundamental level each is looking at the pros and cons for themselves. With sufficient pressure, enough senators will cave to kill this bill. But that pressure will have to be massive because the pressure on the other side is titanic, vast.
The key in my mind is that legislative battles come down to the fact that there is safety in numbers. No one wants to face the storm of public opinion alone. The caucus as a group can withstand it. But if the pressure is focused on the individual weak links it can be too much for an individual senator to manage. So no one in any of these three groups wants to be the first to commit. They want others to go first. No one wants to commit to a tough vote only to see the whole thing go down in flames. The key for opponents is to make the pressure – focused on individual senators – too much for any individually to take the plunge. Since no one will go first, the whole thing comes undone.
With this in mind, the existence of these three groupings, each playing for time as a different set of factors become more clear, is key. The more groups are holding out, the more each individually will want to hold out until others commit, simply because there are more variables to take into account. The more groups, the more collective uncertainty. Opponents’ best hope is to drive as much noise and tension as possible to make the individual drive for self-preservation in these different groups overwhelm their collective desire to get to Yes.
It will be very hard. But as of this morning it seems possible.
Let me go back to what I think is another critical point. When Cassidy says he has “concerns” he is absolutely playing for time to get to Yes. I do not see these as genuine misgivings and uncertainty. (In truth, there’s really nothing to be uncertain about. The big picture is crystal clear.) But no one wants to bet on a losing horse. So it’s possible that enough pressure will make the overall result uncertain enough that he’ll refuse to commit.
Key to remember here is that every delay makes passing the bill harder. Not impossible. We saw that in the House when zombie Trumpcare roused back to life and was swiftly passed. Not impossible, but harder. Certainly the pressure won’t be less if senators go home to face constituents over the July 4th recess. They are definitely playing for time. But this kind of playing for time does make McConnell’s job harder because it diminishes the aura of inevitability that has been his biggest asset over the last two weeks. It also gives more time for the effects of the legislation to become clear to the public.
Keeping up the noise and pressure will only make it harder. I think opponents should hope that Trump’s outside attack group really does run ads against Sen. Heller (even though I’m very skeptical they will). More tension and acrimony, the less likelihood of passage. Let me be clear. My best bet is that McConnell will succeed in passing the bill. But it seems less likely this morning than it did on Thursday and Friday.