On the eve of a vote to begin debate on an Obamacare repeal-and-replace measure, Senate Republicans appeared completely in the dark about what actually is next for their years-long push to overturn the health care law.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said that his chamber is voting Tuesday on a motion to proceed to the House-passed health care bill, the American Health Care Act, with an open amendment process to follow. Tuesday’s vote would kick off that debate if 50 senators are supportive.
But the Republican rank-and-file are still unclear on what exactly their leaders will bring to the floor—or what the final product will be—should they get enough votes.
“I don’t have a clue what we’re going to be voting on,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), an early critic of the Senate’s health care reform legislation, bluntly told reporters Monday on Capitol Hill.
“I’m told we’re going to be finding that out,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) told reporters when asked if it’s appropriate for members to be kept in the dark. Asked whether she would be able to make a decision on the motion to proceed by tomorrow, she replied: “We’ll find out.”
Despite being almost entirely unaware about what legislative vehicle will come next, the Republican party appeared to be building momentum toward... something. On Monday evening, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) announced he would return to the Senate the next day, just a week after being diagnosed with brain cancer. The expectation is that McCain would vote to begin debate on the health care bill and that enough of his fellow Republicans would do so as well; why, after all, get him to come back from Arizona if only to participate in a voting failure?
It was just the latest in a series of dramatic developments that has seen the Obamacare repeal-and-replace-effort die, be revived back to life, killed once more, and resuscitated yet again. The process has been secretive and messy and filled with internal party tensions. That one-sixth of the economy is at stake and no one seems to know what they’re actually going to consider hasn’t been lost on critics and supporters alike.
“Technically, what we’re proceeding to is the bill that came over from the House,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) told The Daily Beast. “Then the substitute motion, we’ll be talking about tomorrow.”
As outlined by a Republican aide, GOP leaders will reveal their vision for a health care endgame—the “substitute motion” to which Tillis refers—during a luncheon on Tuesday. Immediately after that, the Senate will vote on the motion to proceed. That means undecided senators will have just minutes after they hear from their leaders to consider moving forward on a debate that will affect millions of Americans and a substantial part of the U.S. economy.
Some senators admitted to being stumped by the process. Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) said he expects to know more after lunch, “but I can’t tell you that’s absolutely the case.” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said the Senate could vote to begin debate on the American Health Care Act, the 2015 repeal-only legislation, or the Better Care Reconciliation Act—for which Republican leaders couldn’t muster enough support just last week. He wasn’t sure which one will come to the floor—just that he will vote to begin debate.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) stands at the opposite end of the spectrum. She opposes the AHCA, BCRA and the 2015 clean repeal bill and is almost certain to vote no on a motion to proceed unless something spectacular takes place.
“I’d be yes on a motion to proceed on a resolution that referred the matter to the [Health Education, Labor and Pensions] Committee and the Finance Committee with instructions to report back bills within 30 days. That’s something that I could support,” Collins added.
Senate Republicans have indicated that they would not introduce such a provision.
IN THE DARK BUT UNAFRAID
Senators often scoff at being forced to take tough votes with little input or advance warning. But many lawmakers didn’t seem concerned about the lack of clarity on the path forward on health care. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), for one, said he would “vote for anything.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this messy. Republicans wanted to move quickly to repeal and replace Obamacare. But each attempt made in the Senate, during the Trump administration, has come up short. Conservatives have derided bills crafted by the party as “Obamacare lite.” More moderate GOP lawmakers have expressed concern over spending caps on Medicare.
In order to placate specific member demands, leadership has turned to policy secrecy and entertained procedural trickery. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), for example, told reporters Monday that he would vote in favor of the motion to proceed to repeal-and-replace legislation only if he were guaranteed a vote on the 2015 clean repeal bill.
As of Monday night, Paul was unsure whether he would get those assurances. If he and Collins vote against the motion to proceed, Republicans can’t afford to lose another vote. Leadership knows this. But with few other options, they and President Donald Trump have decided to go with a last-ditch ultimatum: vote yes on the motion to proceed, or leave Obamacare in place.
“Any senator who votes against starting debate is telling America that you are fine with the Obamacare nightmare,” the president said Monday at the White House.
It just might work.