Congress slipped through the looking glass and entered Wonderland Thursday when dozens of senators voted “yes” on a healthcare bill they prayed wouldn’t pass. Still, the so-called “skinny repeal,” which would have scrapped Republicans’ least favorite parts of Obamacare, ultimately failed in a dramatic vote early Friday morning.
On the Senate floor leading up to the final tally, Sen. John McCain of Arizona prompted a wave of public speculation about his vote when he was seen conferring with Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Both voted against the last two Obamacare replacement bills earlier this week.
While Collins and Murkowski voted “no,” McCain took a call from President Donald Trump off the floor of the Senate. When McCain returned, he held out his hand for everyone to see and turned his thumb down. With that simple gesture, the skinny repeal was flattened.
“So, yes, this is a disappointment. A disappointment indeed,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor following the vote, seeming to hold back tears. “I imagine many of our colleagues on the other side are celebrating, probably pretty happy about all of this,” he added.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer shot back.
“We are not celebrating; we are relieved — for the Americans who can now keep their healthcare,” he said.
The vote to repeal several significant portions of Obamacare came just hours after a surreal news conference where three Republican senators threatened to scrap the entire Trumpcare effort and vote “no” on the latest piece of legislation unless they had assurances that it would never actually become law. The “Health Care Freedom Act,” as the repeal was presented, would have left 16 million people without healthcare over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
“This policy is a disaster,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Thursday — alongside McCain and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — before ultimately voting for the eight-page bill. “The ‘skinny bill’ as a replacement for Obamacare is a fraud.”
Despite their harsh words for the “skinny repeal” legislation, all three senators said they would vote for the bill if House Speaker Paul Ryan assured them it would not pass the House on its way to becoming law.
In a statement issued Thursday night, Ryan signaled he would be willing to consider putting the legislation to a conference committee, made up of a small group of members of the House and Senate who could work to produce language capable of passing both chambers.
“If moving forward requires a conference committee, that is something the House is willing to do,” Ryan said in the statement. “The reality, however, is that repealing and replacing Obamacare still ultimately requires the Senate to produce 51 votes. The burden remains to the Senate to demonstrate that it is capable of passing something that keeps our promise, as the House has done.”
Some senators, including Graham, publicly expressed concern that the House would just pass the “skinny repeal” bill instead of going to conference, and top House Republicans remained coy about their plans. In addition to Ryan’s noncommittal statement, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the deputy majority whip, said that the House won’t commit to a conference until after the Senate votes, according to the Independent Journal Review.
McCain turned out to be the only one of the three at the Thursday press conference to vote no, likely surprising Trump, who had tweeted earlier in the week that McCain was an American hero for returning to D.C. to vote.
“We must now return to the correct way of legislating and send the bill back to committee, hold hearings, receive input from both sides of aisle, heed the recommendations of nation’s governors, and produce a bill that finally delivers affordable healthcare for the American people,” McCain said in a statement.
That crazy logic of passing a bill no one wanted to pass would only make sense in Congress. The Senate has continually struggled to come to a consensus on an Obamacare alternative, leaving Republicans with two options: abandon their seven-year goal of repealing and replacing Obamacare, or pass something “skinny” to give them the option of reaching a compromise later.
The choice appears to have been made for them. In a concession speech following the vote, McConnell blamed the Democrats for its failure and asked the Senate to move on to other matters, including a national defense bill.