The Arizona senator John McCain torpedoed the Obamacare repeal bill – and with it Donald Trump’s legislative agenda – in a night of high drama on Capitol Hill, The Guardian reports.
McCain’s vote against the bill in the early hours of Friday delivered a major setback for Republicans who have spent seven years vowing to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
McCain, who returned to Washington this week after being diagnosed with brain cancer, joined fellow Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in voting down the so-called “skinny repeal” bill 51-49.
The bill would have removed the individual mandate, which requires all Americans to have health insurance or pay a fine. In an analysis released roughly an hour after the bill was filed, the non-partisan congressional budget committee estimated that 15 million people would lose their cover if it passed and premiums would rise by 20%.
Trump issued a statement on Twitter early on Friday morning where he insisted that he now wanted to let Obamacare collapse. He said: “3 Republicans and 48 Democrats let the American people down. As I said from the beginning, let ObamaCare implode, then deal. Watch!”
The bill was made public minutes before 10pm EDT on Thursday night, giving senators only two hours to review the measure before voting on it. Many Republican senators disdained the legislation, calling it a “disaster” and worse than Obamacare.
McCain, a six-term senator who was his party’s 2008 presidential candidate against Barack Obama, told reporters to “wait for the show” as he arrived for the vote in the Senate chamber.
Once on the Senate floor, McCain was lobbied by the vice-president, Mike Pence, who was there to preside in case of a tie, for more than 20 minutes. The two went back and forth and occasionally disappeared from the chamber altogether.
But as the votes were cast, McCain, who has long nurtured a reputation as a maverick willing to buck party lines, delivered a black eye to Trump, who had famously mocked him as “not a war hero” during the 2016 campaign.
McCain is a decorated navy veteran who was repeatedly tortured during five and a half years of captivity in the Vietnam war.
The dramatic vote ended months of furious negotiating which exposed a party riven over how to dismantle a law that extended healthcare coverage to millions of Americans and has taken root in several states, in some cases with the help of Republican governors.
The vote also deprived Trump of his first major legislative victory six months into his turbulent administration. The president had campaigned on repealing Obamacare but intervened late in the process. His lobbying was sporadic, inconsistent and occasionally counterintuitive. He said in an interview that the House healthcare bill that passed in May, and which the Senate bill mirrors, was “mean”.
“Given his stature, his remarks at the beginning when he came in, moved everybody and I think that helped,” Schumer said. “He’s a hero. He’s a hero of mine.”
“And can we also not forgot the two women senators who were there from the beginning,” interjected Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
Schumer said he could not recall a more dramatic night. Then he turned around and corrected his response, saying: “The birth of my daughter.”
Republicans could tell that the mood was changing in the Senate as the vote approached. “You could see, honestly, the body language in the entire chamber change the last two hours,” David Perdue of Georgia told the Guardian. “You guys were up there, you could see it. One side was kind of ebullient and talking, and the other side was very subdued, and all of a sudden, it began to change. And I think it was an instinctive reaction to maybe, ‘This thing’s not going to pass tonight.’ And nobody knew for sure until you saw three votes.”
“This is what democracy is,” Perdue said. “It’s messy.”
“This isn’t about wins and losses. I actually respect Chuck Schumer’s comments tonight. He admitted Obamacare’s broken, we’ve got to fix it. “I think there’s a mood right now in the Senate, from McCain’s comments the other day to Schumer’s comments tonight, I think there’s a growing sense that ‘let’s get this done.’”
The first-term Georgia Republican cast no blame on McCain. “I don’t think he turned on anybody,” said Perdue. “I think he voted his conscience. He loves America.”
Not all Republicans were so sanguine.
An emotional Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, declared immediately after the vote on the Senate floor: “This is clearly a disappointing moment … So yes, this is a disappointment. A disappointment indeed.” He added: “Our only regret tonight is that we didn’t achieve what we had hoped to accomplish. I think the American people are going to regret that we couldn’t find a better way forward.”
Ted Cruz, an ardent conservative who was skeptical that the bill did not fully dismantle Obamacare, insisted to reporters after the vote: “Mark my words, this journey is not yet done.”
The Texas Republican noted that the vote would be viewed as betrayal by many conservatives who have seen the GOP promise to repeal and replace Obamacare for years. “For seven years Republicans have campaigned on one central message that we would repeal the train wreck that is Obamacare,” said Cruz. “The losers tonight are the people who believed in the democratic process, believe that actually when candidates run and say ‘I will fight to repeal Obamacare’ that that actually means they will fight to repeal Obamacare.”
Democrats have long conceded that there are problems with Obama’s healthcare law, but remained uniformly opposed to any measure that would repeal it. That left McConnell with a small margin of error. He could lose only two votes, with Pence on hand to cast a tie-breaking vote. He lost three when McCain voted no.
Nearly 20 million people gained healthcare coverage under Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The law requires all Americans to have insurance or face a penalty and offered states funding incentives to expand Medicaid coverage for people with low incomes.
In the meantime, Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy insisted the efforts to reform healthcare “can’t be over”. However, Cassidy did manage to view the night’s events with some detachment. “Well, it was certainly dramatic. Certainly Senator McCain knows how to improve the drama.”