WASHINGTON—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s bid to pass a stripped down repeal of Obamacare on a party-line vote failed dramatically in the early hours of Friday when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., joined two other Republican holdouts and all the Democrats to vote against the measure.
McCain stunned several of his fellow Republican senators when he walked onto the Senate floor after midnight and appeared to inform Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, that he couldn’t vote for the “skinny repeal” bill. Just a few days earlier, McCain flew back to the Capitol from Arizona after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer to cast the deciding vote to begin debating it.
After McCain informed Senate leadership of his decision, McConnell delayed the vote for more than an hour, giving time for members to try to lure McCain as well as Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, back into the fold.
“The untouchables!” McCain exclaimed when Collins joined him and Murkowski on the floor, joking about their outcast status among the caucus.
Vice President Mike Pence, who arrived on the Senate floor to cast what he thought would be a tie-breaking vote to pass a repeal bill, spent more than 10 minutes lobbying McCain on the Senate floor, out of earshot of reporters. Meanwhile, several members of the GOP leadership team surrounded Murkowski, attempting to get her to flip her vote so the measure could still narrowly pass.
At one point, McCain crossed the Senate floor and joined a huddle of ebullient Democrats, hugging Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.—a sign to the reporters watching in the gallery above that Pence’s lobbying had clearly failed. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., later said he and McCain had been in contact four or five times per day over the past few days, and that McCain informed him of his decision after he walked on the floor.
Shortly afterwards, McConnell was forced to concede defeat, holding the vote he knew would fall short by just one member of his caucus.
President Trump responded on Twitter: “3 Republicans and 48 Democrats let the American people down. As I said from the beginning, let ObamaCare implode, then deal. Watch!”
McConnell said he was deeply disappointed after the vote failed. “We told our constituents we would vote that way,” he said. “When the moment came, most of us did.”
McConnell glanced in the direction of McCain and Murkowski when he said “most of us.” McConnell told his caucus: “It’s time to move on.”
It was a dramatic and unusual moment in what has been an incredibly unorthodox legislating process on the part of McConnell. After his attempts to craft a broad repeal-and-replace bill entirely behind closed doors broke down a few weeks ago, Senate Republicans began floating the idea of a scaled-back “skinny repeal” that would solely repeal Obamcare’s individual and employer mandates, and a tax.
McConnell didn’t release the legislation until nearly 10 p.m. on the night it was to be voted on, and several Republicans said they would only vote for the bill if they had a guarantee from the House that it wouldn’t pass it into law. Sen Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters Thursday evening McConnell’s bill would be a “disaster” if it was signed into law because it would cause premiums in the individual markets to skyrocket.
Senate leadership said the bill was simply a “vehicle” that would be fixed in a House-Senate conference. And Speaker Paul Ryan had to personally promise at least four Senate Republicans he wouldn’t let the bill become law before they agreed to vote on it. McCain said in a statement that one of the main reasons he voted no was because he was not convinced Ryan would not pass the “shell of a bill” into law.
McCain, Murkowski, and Collins had been critical of the process throughout, asking why there was no clear sense what the legislation they would be voting on was so close to the deadline. McCain urged his colleagues to return to the “old ways” of the Senate and have bipartisan hearings to sort through the health care system’s problems.
But McCain, who helped kick off the skinny repeal process earlier this week, in the end drove the dagger through its heart.
“He’s different,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, after the vote. “But I have great empathy for him and what he’s going through. He’s a brother.”