The failure of Obamacare repeal marks Mitch McConnell’s lowest point as Senate GOP leader.
Despite having a Republican in the White House, full GOP control of Congress and seven years of campaign promises — “pulling out Obamacare root and branch,” as the Kentucky Republican famously declared — McConnell acknowledged this week that he didn’t have the votes to even start debate on replacing the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
It’s a serious defeat for McConnell, and one that leaves deep bitterness among rank-and-file GOP senators, as moderates and conservatives blamed each other over who is at fault for the setback.
It’s also a blow to McConnell’s reputation as a master legislator and raises doubts in the White House about what Senate Republicans can actually deliver for President Donald Trump. McConnell, like Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), finds himself caught between the factions in his own party. And like Ryan, McConnell hasn’t demonstrated that he knows how to resolve the dispute.
“This is an impossible hand,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), McConnell’s closest ally, of the party’s fragile majority.
McConnell announced Tuesday night that the vote to begin the Obamacare debate — which will fail — will occur next week, at Trump’s request. Trump is set to met with Senate Republicans on Wednesday.
The overwhelming majority of GOP senators remain supportive of McConnell, even as he’s faced criticism for largely drafting the bill behind the closed doors of his leadership suite. But some real anger has pierced the typically courteous confines of the Senate.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) — who blasted McConnell on Monday for a “breach of trust” over the way the Obamacare debate was handled — even refused to say whether he would McConnell’s continued tenure as party leader.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen moving forward,” Johnson said. “I didn’t develop the process, let’s put it that way.”
When he faced reporters on Tuesday, McConnell bristled when asked about the lack of accomplishments for the GOP-run Senate. He cited Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court as the biggest Republican win, which likely ranks as the high point of McConnell’s tenure atop the GOP conference.
McConnell blocked Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, former President Barack Obama’s pick, for much of 2016, gambling that Trump would win the White House and the GOP would keep the Senate. But his long-term campaign to mobilize opposition to Obama’s health care law was as much a failure as Gorsuch was a success.
“Well, we have a new Supreme Court justice,” McConnell declared. “And we’re only six months into this. Last time I looked, Congress goes on for two years, and we’ll be moving onto comprehensive tax reform, infrastructure. There’s much work left to be done.”
Yet McConnell has no one else to blame for the position he put himself in. Even as theories persisted in the Capitol that he might actually want the bill to fail, McConnell gamely tried everything during the past two months to reel in the necessary 50 votes.
And now that it’s failed, McConnell may be ready to move on to another issue. He is wary of following Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and other Republicans into bipartisan negotiations to save the insurance markets, according to GOP sources.
When House Republicans passed their bill on May 4, McConnell hoped to avoid mistakes that he had seen on the issue by Republicans and Democrats alike. Under the “reconciliation” procedure by which the legislation was being considered, McConnell would need only 51 votes — 50 senators with Vice President Mike Pence casting a tie-breaking vote — in order to pass a bill.
That approach, while eliminating the need to win Democratic support, gave enormous power to any bloc of wayward Senate Republicans. Issues like Medicaid spending cuts and zeroing out Planned Parenthood funding, which were major challenges in the House, became even bigger in the Senate.
To try to win broad support, McConnell handpicked 13 Senate Republicans — all men — to draft the bill. There were no committee hearings or markups because McConnell thought it would fail in the narrowly divided panels. And there was no effort at all to reach out to Democrats.
McConnell and his top aides assembled the proposal privately, holding it so tightly that no other senators were sure what was in it; some lawmakers complained that lobbyists and the media received information before they did. When the first version of the McConnell plan ran into a buzz saw of criticism from moderates over Medicaid cuts and lack of funding to fight the opioid epidemic, McConnell drafted another version, which was also designed to appeal to wary conservatives.
But then Johnson said he confirmed that McConnell told some moderates worried about reductions in Medicaid spending that the cuts would never even take place, which undermined McConnell’s own message selling the bill to conservatives.
The lack of committee hearings and votes put McConnell in a box in another way, as well. It was the “McConnell bill” or the “McConnell plan.” And as McConnell was busy drafting the bill, these Republicans formed their own cliques or groups, and then lobbied for changes to the plan. When these GOP senators didn’t get what they wanted, they balked at giving their support.
McConnell has always said he was a “regular order” guy. And this time, his failure to use that process hurt him.
The Republican senators-only lunch on Tuesday exposed all the bad feelings and ill will within the GOP conference. Moderate senators argued that repealing the law with no replacement would backfire politically. Conservatives laughed and argued that centrists were never serious about passing a repeal bill that would actually be signed by the president, according to one Republican senator.
McConnell and other Senate GOP leaders are also burdened with a White House totally distracted by the ongoing Russia scandal, which has embroiled Trump, his family and his top aides.
The president was nowhere to be found during much of the Obamacare debate, and when he did jump in, Trump changed directions repeatedly. Trump’s lack of engagement on the bill — and lack of popularity in some quarters of the Senate GOP — meant McConnell had to win over wavering senators on his own. If McConnell couldn’t move these votes, there was no backup. McConnell was on his own, by design and circumstance.
On Monday night, even as the Senate bill was falling apart, Trump was dining with several senators already committed to the bill and was moving on to new health care ideas, quizzing senators over how to lower prescription drug prices and sell insurance across state lines, according to an attendee. The White House didn’t appear to know what was about to happen when Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas were about to tank the whole thing.
Lee didn’t even call McConnell to give him a heads-up.
After Monday’s night drama, McConnell quickly tried to shift his tactics, making a naked appeal to conservatives and isolating his own moderates within the GOP conference. McConnell released a statement saying that he would move to a vote on a “repeal only” bill, something that Trump and other hard-liners had advocated and almost every current Senate Republican except Susan Collins of Maine had voted for in 2015.
But first McConnell would need to get 50 votes even to begin that debate. Collins, joined by GOP Sens. Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, quickly came out against such an approach. Sen. John McCain of Arizona also remains home recovering from surgery. McConnell can lose only two votes, and so once again faces defeat.
The only thing left now for McConnell to do is to actually try to bring up the bill and see it fail.
A number of Senate Republicans came to McConnell’s defense over his handling of the proposal. They insisted no one could have done a better job, considering the difficult circumstances that the proposal was crafted under.
“I look at all the meetings we’ve had, all the input people have had and how we’ve kind of tried to fit this thing within the confines of what we can get 50 votes for, I thought we were there,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 GOP leader. “I can’t explain it.”
“I don’t think it’s McConnell,” said Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas. “We had individual senators on the conservative side [who said] don’t pass anything that would be ‘Obamacare Lite.’ And on the other side people saying it’s not enough. It was just the perfect storm.”
“I’m not going to second guess the leader,” said Collins, one of the stiffest opponents to McConnell’s plan.
Yet the rift between moderates and conservatives is a serious problem for McConnell and other party leaders, one that will be replayed in the coming months on taxes, the 2018 spending bills and the debt ceiling.
“McConnell is a very astute leader,” insisted Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). “People are going to have to answer for their own votes. A lot of people ran promising they were gonna vote for something, and some of them haven’t done it. But that’s up to them and their constituents.”
Seung Min Kim, Jennifer Haberkorn and Adam Cancryn contributed to this report.