Senate Republicans won a relatively minor but important legislative victory on health care on Tuesday afternoon. But the lengths they had to go to secure it – John McCain flying back from Arizona fewer than two weeks removed from surgery that led to a brain cancer diagnosis – suggest the problems, political and policy-wise, that await congressional GOPers and the Trump White House.
Republicans woke up Tuesday morning faced with the possibility that, even with McCain’s return to Washington, they would not be able to secure the votes they needed to merely bring the health care bill to the floor and allow it to be debated.
In the usual legislative cycle, the “motion to proceed” – which is what Republicans passed Tuesday – is merely a formality. But, as with all things related to health care, it became a nail-biter as Vice President Mike Pence broke a 50-50 Senate tie to pass it.
In clearing that hurdle, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell avoided a massive embarrassment and President Donald Trump avoided a stunning rebuke from his own party. Both men had leaned hard on wavering senators over the past few days.
McConnell, as usual, took the more behind-the-scenes route to do his persuading. Trump, again, as usual, went the public route. “Any senator who votes against starting debate is telling America that you are fine with the Obamacare nightmare, which is what it is,” he said on Monday.
Trump was quick to praise the vote during a a joint news conference with the Prime Minister of Lebanon that was postponed until the conclusion of the vote – and McCain’s speech that followed.
“We’re going to try to come up with something that’s really spectacular,” Trump promised. “We have a lot of options, and a lot of great options.”
Before Republicans do too much celebrating, however, consider the following:
* McCain provided momentum where there was none when he announced Monday he would return to the Senate to vote.
* Republicans had to use Pence to break a tie on a motion to proceed to the health care bill.
* There does not appear to be 50 Republican votes for any of the GOP alternatives at the moment.
* Polling suggests a majority of Americans do not like any of the Republican alternatives to the Affordable Care Act.
* Democrats are already promising to run on this vote in 2018.
Simply put: The way forward is far more treacherous than the road to Tuesday’s vote. This was the easy part for Senate Republicans – and it was like pulling teeth.
Remember the words of former House Speaker John Boehner: “Here we are, seven months into this year, and yet they’ve not passed this bill. Now, they’re never – they’re not going to repeal and replace Obamacare. It’s been around too long.”
Today’s vote does nothing to solve the fundamental problem voiced by Boehner – that convincing people to jump from the devil they know to the devil they don’t is the hardest thing to do in politics (and life).
And, even if Republicans find a way through the political thicket surrounding this legislation – or, more likely, push forward in spite of it – they still have to figure out the legislative end of things.
Let’s assume McConnell can get 50 votes on some sort of consensus Republican Senate bill. The bill would then need to go to conference committee to reconcile it with the House version. The conference committee would have to find a way to mesh the two bills together. Then that hybrid bill would need to pass the House and Senate AGAIN. Then Trump would need to sign it, which, knowing Trump’s unpredictability, is no sure thing. (Yes, he has said he is waiting to sign a bill with pen in hand. But what bill? And when? And will he change his mind?)
The point is that today was Republicans’ start up the health care hill, not them reaching the summit. Might they get there? Sure. But it’s going to be a very, very tough climb.