Senate Republicans are barreling toward a dramatic and highly unusual vote on Obamacare Tuesday without knowing whether they’ll have the votes to start dismantling the health care law.
At stake is not just the seven-year-old campaign pledge to repeal Obamacare, but also demonstrating that Republicans — when given full control of Washington — can govern. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz,), recently diagnosed with brain cancer, made it all the more dramatic Monday evening when he announced he would return to Washington for the vote.
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The vote count was unclear as of Tuesday morning. About a half-dozen senators were publicly undecided about whether to allow debate to start on rolling back the Affordable Care Act.
“It helps and probably creates a sense that he wouldn’t be coming back unless the leader told him there was an important reason to come back,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “On the other hand, if we don’t get this done we’re going to go to the” defense policy bill.
The defense bill is a key priority of McCain’s.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a critical swing vote, would not comment on how she will vote. She spent Monday evening with the president, who pressured her to back the bill.
“No comments today,” she said in a brief interview. She has been undecided.
The vote is expected Tuesday afternoon after what is expected to be a rowdy Republican lunch. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is hoping to use McCain’s return and momentum from one final plea to his members at a Tuesday caucus meeting to push the required 50 votes into the “yes” column and open debate on repealing the law.
“It’s probably more drama than it deserves for a motion to proceed,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said Monday afternoon, referring to the Senate term for allowing debate to start.
McConnell and his leadership team are throwing everything they have at wavering senators: the threat of political disaster if they fail, an open amendment process to allow their ideas to be debated — and the argument that a flawed Senate bill can be fixed later in conference negotiations with the House.
Administration officials and senators are discussing adding as much as $100 billion more to earlier drafts to help low-income people with premiums, Republicans said, while senators also may consider a scaled back version of Obamacare repeal that would allow them to at least pass something in the Senate and get to conference, Republicans said.
“I don’t know if they’ve got 50 but I know that I’m not going to vote for something that’s a scaled down version, that’s a political punt,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “That has to be done, I think, through regular order.”
“Big day for HealthCare,” President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. “After 7 years of talking, we will soon see whether or not Republicans are willing to step up to the plate!”
If Senate Republicans can successfully begin debate on Tuesday, it would mark a huge political win as the GOP has been near death on Obamacare repeal many times in the past several weeks. Debate would start with no clear path to how to finish the bill.
Democrats feared the worst with McCain’s return.
“I can’t imagine Mitch McConnell would ask John McCain to come back if he didn’t have the votes. I really believe that you have to assume that,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “It is above and beyond the call of duty … to make a 2,000-mile journey for a vote if Senator McConnell doesn’t believe he has the necessary votes.”
If the vote is unsuccessful, Republicans have pledged to keep working at repealing the law. Senior Republicans have speculated that conservative backlash over a failed vote could pull some senators back to the negotiating table.
It is still unclear what policy the Senate is going to vote on. To get their members on board, Republican leaders are being as vague as possible about what the final bill to replace Obamacare would include, after two recent drafts met fatal opposition.
Republicans are strongly considering a strategy that would tee up two separate votes — one on the repeal only and another on the plan the Senate has been working on to repeal and replace Obamacare.
If one fails, “you set up a vote on the other one,” Thune said. The theory is that by making that assurance, Republicans could pick up votes to start debate from ardent conservatives as well as waffling moderates.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Tuesday reiterated that he would support starting debate if he gets a vote on a bill to repeal large parts of the health law without a replacement. He bemoaned “billions of dollars of pork” tucked into the bill to win over moderates.
“So conservatives are getting squat in this bill. Conservatives are getting nothing,” he said on Fox News. “There is no promise of a clean repeal vote. And if they’re not even going to talk with conservatives. If we are going to be excluded from the process, conservatives don’t need to participate in this pork fest.”