In the early hours of Friday morning, a last-ditch effort to corral Republican senators together to keep their promise to the American people and repeal Obamacare failed with a whimper as the very man expected to save the effort turned against his own party.
Here are five things to know about the “skinny repeal” of Obamacare: what it was, why it died, and where Congress goes from here.
1. Why a “skinny repeal”?
While Republicans took the House of Representatives in 2010, the Senate in 2014, and the presidency in 2016 on promises to repeal and replace President Obama’s signature health legislation, moderates and conservatives disagreed on how to go about it. The first bill, proposed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, was criticized as “Obamacare Lite” and divided conservative groups right down the middle.
Other versions were proposed and rejected, until Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell presented a bare-bones repeal of only the individual and employer mandates, as well as the medical device tax — three very unpopular parts of Obamacare that Republicans should be able to come together to repeal.
In 2015, both the House and Senate passed a bill to repeal Obamacare. Because President Barack Obama would not sign it, the legislation failed. On Friday morning, three senators who voted for that bill in 2015 voted against the McConnell “skinny repeal.”
Some conservatives have attacked the bill as a farce which would achieve nearly nothing and actually make things worse. But most on the Right were angry at the senators who stopped the bill.
2. A stunning betrayal.
Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) dealt the key blow to defeat the “skinny repeal.” Ironically, the man Barack Obama defeated for the presidency in 2008 was instrumental in saving the key piece of Obama’s legacy.
While Republicans hold 52 seats in the Senate, two Republicans were expected to vote against the bill (more on them later). McCain, who was diagnosed with brain cancer (glioblastoma) earlier this month, returned to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday in advance of the health care vote.
McCain voted for a procedural motion to bring the bill to a vote on Tuesday, and his return gave the GOP the votes it needed to pass the legislation. With McCain’s vote, they would have had 50 votes for and 50 votes against, in which case Vice President Mike Pence would have broken the tie.
But McCain got cold feet, and started preaching about bipartisanship at the last moment. “We keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle,” McCain said in a press conference Thursday, CNN reported. “Why don’t we try the old way of legislating in the Senate?”
“I am convinced that we can move forward but we have to have assurances that we will go through a normal process,” McCain added. “We can’t make the same mistake we made in 2009. We’ve got to have Republicans and Democrats together.”
Naturally, this was a misleading statement. The “skinny repeal” was not comparable to Obamacare, the bill Democrats passed in secret in 2009, and about which Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) infamously said they had to pass it to find out what’s in it. This bill would have trimmed Obamacare in broad daylight, and kept a promise to the American people.
Numerous leaders — Sen. McConnell, Vice President Pence, even President Donald Trump himself — urged McCain to keep his promise. Those efforts were reported by Politico.
Despite all this, McCain voted no shortly before 1:30 a.m. on Friday. As he gestured his thumbs down, the chamber erupted in stunned gasps.
“I thought it was the right vote,” McCain told reporters. “I do my job as a senator.”
Here’s the video of McCain breaking the news to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
And now Orrin Hatch approaches McCain to chat. Watch how McCain ends this. pic.twitter.com/CttBfOkgT9
— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) July 28, 2017
3. The other two votes.
McCain killed the bill, but he could not have done it without the opposition of Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
Collins was one of two Republican senators in 2015 not to vote for the straight Obamacare repeal. She and Murkowski balked over language about defunding Planned Parenthood, although Murkowski did end up voting for the bill.
“This law is not affordable for anyone in Alaska,” Murkowski declared in a statement in December 2015. “That is why I will support the bill that repeals the ACA and wipes out its harmful impacts. I can’t watch premiums for Alaskans shoot up by 30 percent or more each year, see businesses artificially constrained, or see the quality of public education decline.”
Where’s that Lisa Murkowski? Can America have her back? The problems of Obamacare did not just magically vanish in less than two years. Everything Murkowski said in 2015 is still true in 2017.
Interestingly, while liberals emphasized the role of Murkowski and Collins (even decrying “sexism” in the media’s focus on McCain over them), both moderates were expected to vote against the bill, which was expected to pass. The betting market PredictIt gave the bill a 90 percent chance of passing (while it only gave Hillary Clinton an 82 percent chance of winning last November).
Sexism= 20 articles about how McCain killed repeal when 2 women have been standing strong in the face of intense pressure for a month.
— Steven of House Gatewood, titles, titles, titles (@sdotgatewood) July 28, 2017
4. The Democrat response.
“I was trying not to jump up and down and smile,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said, after McCain told them he would not be supporting the bill. Politico reported that McCain “walked over to a gaggle of Senate Democrats and told them that he would be voting no.” He reportedly embraced Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
“We are not celebrating — we are relieved,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “We are relieved, not for ourselves but for the American people. But, as I said, over and over again, Obamacare was hardly perfect. It did a lot of good things, but it needs improvement.”
Schumer echoed McCain in calling for bipartisan work on the bill. “I hope that one part of turning that page is that we go back to regular order, work in the committees together to improve Obamacare,” he said.
Liberals on Twitter thanked the GOP senators for breaking their promises to the American people.
“Thank you senators Collins and Murkowski, you have saved many lives,” tweeted Peter Daou. “And special gratitude to John McCain for showing the heart of a hero.”
Thank you senators Collins and Murkowski, you have saved many lives. And special gratitude to #JohnMcCain for showing the heart of a hero.
— Peter Daou (@peterdaou) July 28, 2017
Amy Siskind, an LGBT and women’s rights activist, emphasized Collins and Murkowski.
This. Collins and Murkowski did the heavy lift! https://t.co/MDmO8VgU3K
— Amy Siskind 🏳️🌈 (@Amy_Siskind) July 28, 2017
“Gender queer” Army veteran Charles Clymer praised Collins and Murkowski, who he said “led with their conscience, not politics.”
GOP Senators Collins and Murkowski, two women, led on this. They led with their conscience, not politics. Don't forget that. #SkinnyRepeal
— Charlotte Clymer 🏳️🌈 (@cmclymer) July 28, 2017
Apparently breaking promises to the American people entails “leading with conscience,” at least on the Left.
5. What happens next?
In discussing his reasons for rejecting the bill, McCain mentioned the next step on the agenda, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a top priority for the Arizona senator as Armed Services Committee chairman.
“Let’s get this over with,” McCain told the Democrats. “I really want to do NDAA.”
“This is clearly a disappointing moment,” McConnell said after the vote. “Our constituents have suffered through an awful lot under Obamacare. We thought they deserved better. It’s why I and my colleagues did as we promised and voted to repeal the failed law.”
But McConnell concluded by saying, “It’s time to move on” and calling for action on the NDAA.
Libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) declared that he would not allow McConnell to move forward on the defense bill, following McCain’s betrayal.
In a powerful statement to Fox News, Sen. Ted Cruz declared that many Americans would “feel a sense of betrayal” after this vote. “If you stand up and campaign and say, ‘We’re going to repeal Obamacare,’ and you vote for Obamacare, those are not consistent.”
“The losers tonight are the millions of Americans who have been hurt under Obamacare — the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs, who have been forced into part-time work, millions of Americans who’ve had their health insurance cancelled, who’ve lost their doctors, who’ve seen their premiums skyrocket,” Cruz concluded.
President Donald Trump tweeted his frustration. “3 Republicans and 48 Democrats let the American people down,” Trump declared. “As I said from the beginning, let ObamaCare implode, then deal. Watch!”
3 Republicans and 48 Democrats let the American people down. As I said from the beginning, let ObamaCare implode, then deal. Watch!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 28, 2017
According to the Alaska Dispatch News, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called Alaska Sens. Murkowski and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and warned that Murkowski’s opposition “put Alaska’s future with the administration in jeopardy.”
Sen. Collins said she has not heard from the White House since the vote and has received no threats.
While McCain and McConnell want to move on from this debacle, conservatives will insist Congress act to repeal Obamacare. This battle is still just beginning.