Senate Republicans voted Tuesday to open debate on repealing Obamacare, dramatically reviving an effort that many GOP lawmakers left for dead just a few days ago.
The vote is a huge political win and turnaround for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republicans who’ve promised for seven years to repeal Obamacare if voters gave them control of Congress and the White House.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), recently diagnosed with brain cancer, entered the chamber to a standing ovation and cast the 50th Republican vote. GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska broke ranks to oppose the measure, forcing Vice President Mike Pence to break a 50-50 tie.
All Democrats opposed the measure. Underscoring the significance of the vote, many senators sat at their desks for the vote.
The vote is no guarantee that the fractured Republican caucuses can coalesce around a single health care plan. Now that debate has officially started, Republicans in the Senate lack 50 votes on a policy. Moderates oppose repealing Obamacare without a replacement, and conservatives don’t like the idea of significantly replacing it.
The leading idea now is to repeal only a small portion of the health law just to get a bill to a conference with the Senate.
After a series of votes on amendments, Republicans would aim to enact a bill repealing three parts of Obamacare: the individual and employer mandates and the medical device tax, according to Republican sources. It could be expanded or altered depending on where the bulk of the conference is.
“Whatever gets to 50,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).
The goal would be to get an Obamacare repeal bill through the Senate and to a conference with the House. Or perhaps to pass a bill that the House would accept given opposition among some House members to a bicameral conference committee. Still, that scaled-back approach is already hitting some resistance among some GOP senators.
Before Tuesday’s vote, McConnell urged senators to take the first step to “provide relief on this failed left-wing experiment.”
“I’d like to reiterate what the president said yesterday. ‘Any senator who votes against starting debate,’ he said, ‘is telling America that you are fine with the Obamacare nightmare…’ That’s a position that even Democrats have found hard to defend,” McConnell said.
The fate of the vote was uncertain as recently as Tuesday morning. Conservative Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), moderate Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and vulnerable incumbent Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) waited until the final hours before the vote to announce they would support opening debate on the bill.
Paul’s vote was conditioned on the party agreeing to move quickly to a vote on repealing without a replacement. The other amendment would be a leadership-designed repeal and replace bill, he said.
Heller said his support for whatever emerges later is not assured.