Senate opens Obamacare debate but outcome in doubt
Prodded by President Donald Trump, a bitterly divided Senate voted at last Tuesday to move forward with the Republicans’ long-promised legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare. There was high drama as Sen. John McCain returned to the Capitol for the first time after being diagnosed with brain cancer to cast a decisive “yes” vote.
The final tally was 51-50, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking the tie after two Republicans joined all 48 Democrats in voting “no.”
With all senators in their seats and protesters agitating outside and briefly inside the chamber, the vote was held open at length before McCain, 80, entered the chamber. Greeted by cheers, he smiled and dispensed hugs – but with the scars from recent surgery starkly visible on the left side of his face.
Despite voting “yes,” he took a lecturing tone afterward and hardly saw success assured for the legislation after weeks of misfires, even after Tuesday’s victory for Trump and Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
“If this process ends in failure, which seems likely, then let’s return to regular order,” McCain said as he chided Republican leaders for devising the legislation in secret along with the administration and “springing it on skeptical members.”
“Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio, TV and internet. To hell with them!” McCain said, raising his voice as he urged senators to reach for the comity of earlier times.
When the Senate voted Tuesday evening on the bill’s initial amendment, it underscored how hard it will be for the chamber’s divided Republicans to pass a sweeping replacement of Obama’s law.
By 57-43 – including nine GOP defectors – it blocked a wide-ranging proposal by McConnell to erase and replace much of the statute. It included language by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, letting insurers sell cut-rate policies with skimpy coverage, plus an additional $100 billion to help states ease out-of-pocket costs for people losing Medicaid sought by Midwestern moderates including Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
At the White House, though, Trump wasted no time in declaring a win and slamming the Democrats anew.
“I’m very happy to announce that, with zero of the Democrats’ votes, the motion to proceed on health care has just passed. And now we move forward toward truly great health care for the American people,” Trump said. “This was a big step. I want to thank Senator John McCain – very brave man.”
At its most basic, the Republican legislation is aimed at undoing Obamacare’s unpopular mandates for most people to carry insurance and businesses to offer it. The GOP would repeal Obamacare taxes and unwind an expansion of the Medicaid program for the poor, the disabled and nursing- home residents. The result would be 20 million to 30 million people losing insurance over a decade, depending on the version of the bill.
The GOP legislation has polled abysmally, while Obamacare itself has grown steadily more popular. Yet most Republicans argue that failing to deliver on their promises to pass repeal-and-replace legislation would be worse than passing an unpopular bill, because it would expose the GOP as unable to govern despite controlling majorities in the House, Senate and White House.
Tuesday’s vote amounted to a procedural hurdle for legislation whose final form is impossible to predict under the Senate’s byzantine amendment process, which will unfold over the next several days.
Indeed senators had no clear idea of what they would ultimately be voting on, and in an indication of the uncertainty ahead, McConnell said the Senate will “let the voting take us where it will.” The expectation is that he will bring up a series of amendments, including a straight-up repeal and fuller replacement legislation, to see where consensus may lie.