McCain’s return gives hope to Senate health care bill

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter
Sen. John McCain (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will travel to the Capitol Tuesday in time to vote on the Senate health care measure, breathing some life back into the Republicans’ bid to repeal and replace Obamacare.

“Senator McCain looks forward to returning to the United States Senate tomorrow to continue working on important legislation, including health care reform, the National Defense Authorization Act and new sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea,” McCain’s office announced in a statement late Monday night.

Earlier Monday, McCain’s colleagues lamented his absence, saying they hoped he could get permission from his doctors to travel to Washington despite his recent diagnosis of brain cancer.

“I think we can get the motion to proceed done without him, but certainly it would help if he was here,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters. Cornyn said he would happily drive McCain if the senator wasn’t medically able to get on an airplane.

With McCain in attendance, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s last-ditch bid to squeeze through a repeal-and-replace plan looks more likely than it did earlier Monday, when the motion to proceed could only lose one Republican vote. Now, McConnell can lose two members of his caucus in Tuesday’s vote and still proceed to debate the House’s repeal-and-replace bill.

The House bill would quickly be replaced with an updated version of the Senate’s replace measure that has not been announced publicly and that most Republican members say they have not yet seen. Senators will also likely get to vote on an amendment to repeal Obamacare with no replacement.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has said she will vote against the motion to proceed. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is leaning no. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio and others remain undecided — making it possible other no votes could emerge before Tuesday afternoon’s vote.

While the path forward for McConnell is narrow, McCain’s surprise presence could invigorate the GOP caucus to rally around their campaign promises to repeal and replace Obamacare. McCain’s spokeswoman did not reply to an emailed question about how the senator would vote Tuesday, but his return alone suggests he’s supporting the motion to proceed. The senators will meet Tuesday over lunch to whip last-minute votes and discuss the amendment process.

McConnell and President Trump spent much of Monday turning up the pressure on members of their party. Trump said Republicans who vote against proceeding to debate are essentially saying they support the “nightmare” of Obamacare. McConnell, meanwhile, met with Republican senators in his office to push them to vote for the measure, where he was joined by Vice President Mike Pence.

Still, it’s far from clear whether McConnell can get the 50 votes he needs to start debate, or if he could pass any legislation even if he can get his caucus to agree to debate. If he holds the vote and it fails, he will force some of his members to take a political risk in voting on the unpopular measure without even notching a legislative win to make up for it. Some Republican moderates, such as Portman, representing states that would see steep Medicaid cuts under the replace plan are in an especially uncomfortable position.

“If he holds the vote, he’s probably handing at least a few of them an electoral death sentence,” said political strategist Liz Mair, who has worked for Republican candidates. “Either they vote no and get primaried, and if they have a non-terrible competitor, lose. Or they vote yes and get hammered in their general elections.”

But GOP senators said they believe it was time to put up or shut up on Obamacare repeal — something they’ve been promising to deliver on the campaign trail for seven years.

“My personal feeling is with all the time and effort we spent on this, it’s helpful for the members to be able to show exactly where they would have been as opposed to trying to explain that some other way,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of the GOP’s leadership team.

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said the vote will “get people on the record as to whether they are prepared to take the next steps to repeal Obamacare.”

“Some folks will continue to negotiate until the deadline, so at some point you have to set a deadline to vote,” Rounds said. “Now’s the time to fish or cut bait.”

Holding a vote also frees up McConnell to move on to tax reform and other priorities, as the president remains hungry for a significant legislative victory after more than six months in office.

“Whatever happens on health care post-Labor Day, they still absolutely have to get a major tax reform package done,” said Tim Phillips, president of the Americans for Prosperity conservative group. “If they fail on health care, then it raises the stakes even higher on tax reform.”

But a failure to repeal and replace Obamacare could still haunt Republicans long after a vote.

“Republicans need to show that we can lead, that we can govern,” said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “There’s a Republican in the White House, a Republican majority in the Senate and the House. There’s no excuse not to get this done.”

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