Senate votes to begin ObamaCare repeal debate

The Senate on Tuesday began debate on healthcare legislation, taking a big step forward in its effort to repeal ObamaCare, after Vice President Pence broke a 50-50 tie to cast the deciding vote.

Two Republicans, Sens. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiAnti-Trump Republicans endorsing vulnerable Democrats to prevent GOP takeover GOP rallies around Manchin, Sinema McConnell gets GOP wake-up call MORE (Alaska) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsMcConnell gets GOP wake-up call Republicans are today's Dixiecrats Biden's push for unity collides with entrenched partisanship MORE (Maine), voted with Senate Democrats against the procedural measure, highlighting the narrow margin of error the White House and GOP leaders face in getting a repeal bill to President Trump.

Republicans would not have even gotten to 50 votes and Pence’s tie-breaker without Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Biden-Harris train wreck may have its savior: 2024 GOP nominee Donald Trump Kelly raises million in third quarter Legislative limbo — how low can they go? MORE’s (R-Ariz.) dramatic return to the Senate for the first time since he was diagnosed with brain cancer.

McCain received bipartisan applause as he entered the chamber — and then cast a vote to keep the GOP hope of repealing ObamaCare alive.

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He said in a floor speech that he would vote against the Senate GOP’s current repeal-and-replace bill unless it is improved.

Just starting the debate was a victory for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden signs bill to raise debt ceiling On The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan Schumer, McConnell headed for another collision over voting rights MORE (R-Ky.), who has had to postpone votes on multiple occasions because of opposition from conservative and centrist members of his conference, as well as McCain’s absence from Washington last week.

It was also a win for Trump, who has repeatedly pressured Republicans to begin their debate. Trump’s meeting at the White House with the Senate GOP conference was a turning point in the current effort, as it came at a time when GOP leaders seemed close to throwing in the towel.

McConnell praised the president’s contributions in a speech before the vote, even though Trump has at times chafed the GOP leader with some of his strategic moves and tweets.

That the GOP even had the 50 votes necessary to clear the first procedural hurdle only became clear when Sens. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerDemocrats brace for tough election year in Nevada Democratic poll finds Cortez Masto leading Laxalt by 4 points in Nevada Senate race The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - To vote or not? Pelosi faces infrastructure decision MORE (R-Nev.), Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit Here are the 11 GOP senators who helped advance the debt extension Key debt-limit vote sparks major fight among Senate Republicans MORE (R-W.Va.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanMcConnell gets GOP wake-up call Biden shows little progress with Abraham Accords on first anniversary The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit MORE (R-Ohio) announced minutes before the vote began that they would support their party.

All three faced enormous pressure to do so given calls from Trump, McConnell and other Republicans to let the debate move forward.

“Today, I will vote to begin debate to repeal and replace Obamacare,” Capito said in a statement. “As this process advances on the Senate floor, I will continue to make decisions that are in the best interest of West Virginians.”

While starting the debate is a victory as the GOP seeks to fulfill its years-long goal of repealing ObamaCare, what happens next is a bit of a mystery.

In a highly unusual situation, senators voted to begin debate without being sure of what plan they would end up voting on.

McConnell is expected to offer a measure repealing ObamaCare with a two-year delay, as well as a Senate bill that would repeal and replace the previous president’s signature legislation. Neither appears to have the votes to pass.

Some senators were predicting on Tuesday that a scaled-back “skinny” repeal bill might have the best chances of winning 50 votes, but even that is not clear.

That scaled-down measure would repeal ObamaCare’s individual and employer mandates, as well as the medical device tax, aides say.

If it passed, it would then allow Republicans to keep their process alive and go to a conference committee with the House to try to work out a new bill.

“I think the endgame is to be able to move something at the end of this process across the Senate floor that can get 50 votes and then get into conference with the House,” Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP rallies around Manchin, Sinema McConnell gets GOP wake-up call Democrat on controversial Schumer speech: Timing 'may not have been the best' MORE (R-S.D.) told reporters Tuesday afternoon.

Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  MORE (R-Tenn.) said he thought the final vote would be on the “lowest common denominator.”

McConnell had urged his party to back the procedural motion, arguing it was improper to prevent the Senate from holding a debate on such an important matter.

Just a week ago, it did not appear that his argument would win out.

Capito last week on Twitter said that she would only vote to advance to repeal legislation “if I am confident there is a replacement plan that addresses my concerns.”

Heller, who is facing a tough reelection race next year, voted to begin debate after having sharply criticized an earlier version of the ObamaCare replacement bill.

He argued, though, that he would not necessarily back the final bill.

“If the final product isn’t improved for the state of Nevada, then I will not vote for it; if it is improved, I will support it,” he said in a statement.

Whatever actions senators take will have dramatic results for the healthcare system.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that the latest version of the Senate’s replacement bill would cause 22 million more people to be uninsured over a decade. That bill would scale back ObamaCare subsidies to help people afford coverage and put a new cap on Medicaid spending, leading to billions of dollars in cuts to the program.

Even the “skinny” version would have dramatic effects and could destabilize the insurance market. The CBO previously found that repealing the individual mandate would lead to 15 million fewer people with insurance and increase premiums by about 20 percent.

But that bill could be changed in a conference committee with the House.  

After McCain returned to cast his vote, he spoke from the Senate floor to urge both parties to work together. He said lawmakers should use the committee process, known as regular order, which was bypassed by GOP leaders on the healthcare bill.

“Why don’t we try the old way of legislating in the Senate, the way our rules and customs encourage us to act?” McCain said. “If this process ends in failure, which seem likely, then let’s return to regular order.”