Talking is no longer working. It’s time to vote.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is taking the rare step of forcing his members to take a tough vote on an Obamacare repeal bill, H.R. 1628 (115), that is on track to fail, making them own their votes.
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Senior Senate Republicans believe the high-profile vote expected Tuesday — followed by conservative backlash over the GOP’s failure to fulfill its seven-year campaign pledge — might provoke enough heat from the base to bring senators back to the negotiating table.
It seems like a long shot. But McConnell may be playing the long game — making his members walk the plank not as an act of desperation but as part of a strategy that just might work. He’s used it before to get what he wants.
If the vote fails, “I don’t think it’s over,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of the Senate leadership. “We’re going to need a little longer runway to get to 50 votes on something.“
“Even if we fail on the procedural vote next week,” Thune added,” all that really does is say ‘OK, we’ll regroup and then take another run at this.’”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has been demanding McConnell hold a vote on a repeal-only bill, agrees. “We can do this for quite a while,” he said.
McConnell has used this approach before. In May 2015 he forced multiple votes that ultimately granted then-President Barack Obama fast-track trade powers during negotiation of a massive Pacific Rim trade deal.
This time, the vote comes after months of discussion on repeal legislation that hasn’t garnered support from 50 senators.
If the strategy doesn’t bring senators back to the table, the vote could demarcate a decisive end to at least the public Obamacare repeal debate for some time. That would allow the Senate, which has already spent two months trying to dismantle and replace the health law, to move on and notch some legislative wins. Many are more than ready to turn to other priorities, like tax reform.
Still, holding a doomed vote is unusual for McConnell, who typically goes to great lengths to protect his members from politically difficult votes.
“Everybody has to be held personally accountable,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has been furiously whipping the repeal effort. “Everybody is a good enough politician that if they’ve got a reason to justify their vote, they’ll be able to sell that.”
The vote Tuesday will be to start debate on Obamacare repeal. But it is unclear as of now which bill would serve as the actual policy — an extremely unusual move. McConnell said earlier this week the Senate would vote on a repeat of a 2015 bill that repealed much of the health care law. Since then, senators have floated the idea of voting on multiple options, including repeal, the Senate’s repeal-and-replace measure or a combination of these and other policies.
That would be moot if the Senate doesn’t even vote to start debate.
With at least two senators having announced they would oppose proceeding to the bill — and the expected absence of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was diagnosed with a brain tumor — the vote is likely to fail without major last minute changes. Leaders have opened the door to the idea that if the margin is narrow, they could vote again when McCain could return to Washington. Given his diagnosis, it’s not clear when that could happen.
Senate Republicans have other reasons to stop the political bleeding over repeal. They want to move on to tax reform but they also have health care bills that must pass in the coming months, including renewing the Children’s Health Insurance Program and a pivotal FDA funding program. The Obamacare debacle could affect those other bills.
The decision to hold a vote — versus just pulling the bill from the floor without forcing members to go on the record — will be more difficult for some senators than others.
It could be the biggest liability for Republicans who supported a 2015 repeal bill — which Obama vetoed — and now won’t support the same measure. All Republicans currently in office besides Sen. Susan Collins of Maine supported it.
“We’re going to find out if there’s hypocrisy in the United States Senate in the next few days,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.). “I don’t believe in situational ethics. So if you thought it was a good idea to repeal when we had a president that probably would not have accepted it, what’s wrong with repealing it now when we have a president who would sign it into law?”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who is not up for reelection until 2020 in a conservative state, argued that “circumstances have changed” since she voted to repeal the law in 2015 and that she “would hope” voters understand her argument. For instance, expanded Medicaid has played a big role in combating the opioid epidemic in her state.
“People’s minds change and circumstances change,” Capito said. “And as time goes on, that’s what’s happened and you know, I gotta do what I think is the right thing to do.” She doesn’t want to vote on a repeal until she sees a replacement measure for the Affordable Care Act.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who may face a competitive reelection bid next year, dismissed suggestions that voting for a straight repeal of the 2010 health care law could hurt his prospects.
“I’ve already voted on it. I’m fine with it,” Flake said in an interview. “All I can say is, if it comes up, I’ll vote for it. There have been so many votes on this over the years that if your opponents want to paint you one way or another, there’s lots of fodder they can use.”