The blow—and there have been previous stakes put into the heart of repeal attempts—came on Monday when Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) became the third Republican to come out against the bill authored by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA). That brought Senate Republicans below the 50-vote threshold, which they only can use prior to September 30 due to parliamentary rules.
As doom set in, however, the bill’s top proponents were still scraping for votes, entertaining the possibility of some dramatic swing in their favor, and plotting ways to take another run at repeal even if that deadline passed.
“We’re going to vote on this thing, and we’re going to pass it,” Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, told reporters on Monday. Cassidy echoed Heller, saying, “I think we’re going to have 50 votes.”
It is always difficult for lawmakers to acknowledge defeat. And the fact that this is the third attempt Senate Republicans have taken at repeal-and-replace in the Donald Trump era underscores that reality. But while Heller and Cassidy were doing their best to muster a sunny disposition, the GOP rank-and-file was less optimistic.
“Everybody knows that’s going to fail,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the most senior Republican in the Senate, told The Daily Beast even before Collins made her announcement. “You don’t have one Democrat voting for it, so it’s going to fail.”
The process by which Graham-Cassidy has gotten to this point could best be described as unorthodox. The legislation emerged a couple weeks ago as the last Republican effort to repeal Obamacare before the Senate’s budget reconciliation rules expire on September 30, after which the threshold for passage rises to 60 votes. Its authors claimed, at one point, to be one or two votes shy of getting 50. And both GOP leadership and the White House put in modest efforts to help build support for the bill.
But on Friday, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) came out against it. The authors scrambled over the weekend to craft a new version and released it on Monday. The bill sends federal funds in the form of block grants to individual states, and those states governments are largely able to use the money as they see fit. The fixes included increases in federal funding geared toward states whose senators are either on the fence or leaning toward voting against it.
Hail Mary passes, however, usually fall incomplete. And on Monday, Republican senators—even those who support Graham-Cassidy—were visibly frustrated at how the process has played out.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), who told The Daily Beast last week that he was concerned that the bill could allow some states to develop a single-payer health care system, said he was dismayed at the lack of clarity on the legislation, as well as efforts to win over certain senators’ votes by throwing extra money at their states.
“I don’t even know what the bill looks like anymore,” Kennedy said repeatedly. “I don’t even know what the bill says anymore. I have no idea what it says. … I defended [the bill]. But I said then and I mean it now: if we start making, ‘let’s make a deal with everybody at the expense of my state’—then color me unamused. I don’t think that’s the right way to do business.”
By Monday evening, it had become clear that—in Kennedy’s words—the “bill doesn’t have the votes.” Graham and Cassidy soldiered on, appearing on a scheduled CNN debate, during which Graham said that “it’s ok to vote” on the bill even if the votes aren’t there. But the appetite for doing that was low on Capitol Hill.
“There’s no sense of going through what we did in August,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) decision in late July to hold a health care vote that failed when McCain voted against it.
For the third time in as many months, Senate Republicans have tried to repeal and replace Obamacare, only to fall short. And while the bills they’ve considered have all fared poorly among the general public, the GOP base has continued to agitate for action. They’ve been egged on by President Trump, who has delighted in calling out certain Republican senators on Twitter, including over the weekend. In one tweet, Trump said Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), another Graham-Cassidy opponent, would be known as “the Republican who saved Obamacare” if he votes against the bill.
“I don’t think there’s been a louder, more outspoken opponent of Obamacare in the country,” Paul told The Daily Beast at a press conference on Monday. “And I feel confident that voters can make an informed decision on who’s for and who’s against.”
While Republican leadership feels the heat from Trump, they also have been attacked forcefully by the general public. The revival of Graham-Cassidy on Monday coincided with a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the legislation. Activists—many of whom were wheelchair-bound—began waiting in line at the crack of dawn for the 2:00 p.m. hearing. Dozens of protesters were arrested and physically dragged out of the hearing room. Demonstrators began chanting immediately when the hearing began, causing Hatch, the committee’s chairman, to recess the hearing until order was eventually restored. All told, Capitol Police officers arrested 181 protesters, 15 of whom were charged with disruption of Congress for chanting inside the committee room.
Later that evening, Trump once again tweeted his displeasure with his own party, posting a six-minute video attacking McCain for previously pledging to repeal and replace the 2010 law. Graham teared up when defending his best friend from the president’s attack. And for the first time in the evening, he hinted that he understood the legislative setback that was to come.
“Sen. McCain has talked about a better process,” Graham declared. “John, if you’re listening, if we fall short, we will try to have a better process.”