Let the debate begin.
In a dramatic 50-50 vote with Vice President Mike Pence breaking the tie, the Republican-led Senate voted Tuesday to begin debate on their efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare as over a dozen protesters chanted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” from above.
The vote is a key parliamentary hurdle that sets off days of arguing, hastily drafted amendments, close votes, and angry protests. After seven years of promises to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment, Republicans have never been closer than they are today.
“With a surprise election comes great opportunities to do things we never thought were possible,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told his colleagues before the vote in an attempt at inspiration. “We can’t let this moment slip by, we can’t let it slip by.”
But it almost did slip by. There are only 52 Republicans in the Senate, and whether 50 would vote to proceed on debate was unknown until the final minutes. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine voted no while 48 Republicans had voted yes.
For several minutes, Republicans waited for Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.
McCain, who has been gone from the Senate for over a week after surgery to remove a blood clot and a subsequent diagnosis of brain cancer, returned for the vote on Tuesday to applause from both sides of the aisle (although Republicans appeared far happier to see him than Democrats did).
Johnson, meanwhile, verbally sparred with McConnell for several minutes on the Senate floor, leading to speculation that he would vote “no.” But ultimately both senators voted “yes,” and now the Senate enters into one of the final stages to pass legislation.
Following his vote and speaking with a fresh incision above his left eye, McCain took to the Senate floor to attack the secretive and partisan process that has defined this healthcare legislation. “We all conspired in our decline,” he said.
The Senate has held zero hearings and McConnell has written the legislation behind closed doors in order to avoid public scrutiny and political blowback. “I have fresh appreciation for the protocols and customs of this body,” McCain said. He predicted that Trumpcare would fail and pledged not to vote for the bill without significant changes. Despite the lofty rhetoric, however, McCain still voted to move forward the legislative process he decried.
Here’s what happens next:
- Democrats and Republicans each get 10 hours to debate. This is 20 hours in Senate time, meaning it can stretch across several days because they can take breaks.
- Democrats will propose amendments that are meant to embarrass Republicans. They are unlikely to be included in the final legislation.
- Republicans are going to propose several amendments that are essentially separate bills. For example, there will be votes on a full Obamacare repeal with a two-year delay that Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has been pushing. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana also have a bill to transfer most control over healthcare to states.
- You’re going to hear the phrase “point of order” a lot. Senate rules of reconciliation — which allow Republicans to pass this with only 51 votes — only allow certain things to be included in the bill. If someone calls a “point of order” on a piece of legislation, the Senate Parliamentarian will determine if the legislation qualifies under the rules of reconciliation. There are some reasons to believe that provisions like the defunding of Planned Parenthood are not allowed under reconciliation.
- McConnell will likely propose a final “amendment” that will overrule all the previous amendments. This will be the Senate’s Trumpcare bill.
- If a healthcare bill passes the Senate, then the House of Representatives can pass it as written and send it to President Trump’s desk, or they can negotiate with the Senate in a conference committee. That committee would produce a new bill, which would then have to pass both chambers again.