GOP leaders hoped to vote on the measure this week, but emergency surgery for the Arizona Republican will keep him away from Congress for at least a week — and possibly longer.
That is giving outside groups more time to spend millions on campaign ads attacking the legislation and pressure swing voters to reconsider.
“Right now there’s no momentum at all to pass this bill,” said Ron Bonjean, who formerly served as a senior Republican leadership aide in the Senate and House.
Bill Hoagland, a former senior Republican Senate aide, said another delay is bad news for the GOP.
“My initial reaction is that it makes it tougher. It gives an opportunity for the opposition, which was pretty strong or growing, to grow even stronger,” he said.
Rank-and-file senators are voicing loud concerns about the bill. Worse, behind-the-scenes efforts by GOP leaders to win over some of their colleagues risk losing support from others.
Johnson described the comments as a “breach of trust,” underlining the difficulty the GOP leader faces in finding 50 Republican votes for the healthcare bill.
“There are about eight to 10 Republican senators who have serious concerns about this bill. And so at the end of the day, I don’t know whether it will pass,” she told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
The White House is scrambling to help in the effort. On Monday night, President Trump will meet with a group of senators to hear their concerns about the bill.
Yet Trump has not always made McConnell’s job easier.
More recently, Trump suggested that the Senate should just repeal ObamaCare and worry about a replacement later if the measure stalls, another move seen as unhelpful by GOP leaders.
McConnell never wanted to end up in this position.
He had pushed the Senate to consider its ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill in June, before the July Fourth recess.
McConnell’s blitzkrieg strategy was bogged down when four conservatives and two moderates threatened to oppose a procedural motion to begin debate.
Now his plan has been postponed for another week and maybe longer, undercutting the momentum and sense of team spirit he was counting on to get it over the finish line. GOP leaders have been pressing their members to back their party on the procedural vote and allow debate to begin.
Hoagland, who formerly served as Republican staff director of the Senate Budget Committee, said the longer big, complex bills sit out in public view for critics to take shots at, the tougher they are to pass.
Bonjean argues that McCain’s absence has a silver lining in that it gives GOP leaders more time to sell skeptical Republican governors and moderates on the legislation, an effort that has been eclipsed by criticism so far.
“They now have an opportunity to continue to sell it to wavering senators and work on them, so I think it’s more to their benefit than their detriment at this point,” he added.
But John Weaver, a Republican strategist, thinks the monthlong delay has been fatal to its chances.
“There is no momentum for this bill. It has no real credible advocates in the public domain. All the momentum is against it, and the longer it sits out there, the less likely it’s going to pass. I don’t believe it’s going to pass,” he said.
Before the July Fourth recess, Weaver, who served as chief political adviser to Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s (R) 2016 presidential run, thought that McConnell might be able to find enough money to satisfy the concerns of moderate Republican senators who were holding out.
But he doesn’t think that’s possible any longer after moderate Republicans went back to their home states over the recess and heard directly from the bill’s critics.
Weaver said McConnell “could pull a rabbit out of his hat if he did it quickly.”
“He could not pull out a rabbit out of his hat if it languished over the Fourth of July holiday,” he said.
Outside groups opposing the Senate GOP’s healthcare bill have vastly outspent groups supporting it, according to Advertising Analytics, a group that tracks television advertising.
The firm estimates about $3.5 million has been spent influencing senators to vote against the bill.
Jon Ralston, a longtime political commentator based in Nevada, says Heller has been hammered by television ads funded by AARP, the seniors advocacy group.
“There’s an AARP spot I see all the time,” he said, describing an ad that shows a clip of Heller promising not to vote for a bill that would kick millions of people off health insurance.
“The Medicaid provisions in the new bill aren’t that much different” from those in the original version, Ralston noted. “I continue to believe there is no way for him to get to a yes on this bill unless they dramatically change the Medicaid provision in that bill.”