WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was handed devastating news Monday evening just hours after the Senate was gaveled back into session: Two more defections on his health care bill.
The dramatic and simultaneous announcement from Sens. Jerry Moran of Kansas and Mike Lee of Utah means McConnell officially does not have the votes to even begin debate on his legislation to overhaul the Affordable Care Act — and that the Republican Party’s years-long quest to kill former President Barack Obama’s legacy accomplishment is, for the time being, halted without a path forward.
In announcing their opposition to the bill, Moran and Lee said they would vote “no” on the motion to proceed — a vote that McConnell had hoped to hold this week but was already forced to postpone due to Arizona Sen. John McCain’s absence from Washington.
“We should not put our stamp of approval on bad policy. Furthermore, if we leave the federal government in control of everyday healthcare decisions, it is more likely that our healthcare system will devolve into a single-payer system, which would require a massive federal spending increase,” Moran said in a statement.
In a stark sign of just how grave his concerns are about the bill, Moran went as far as to call for a “fresh” start and an “open legislative process.”
The surprise announcement was all the more devastating as President Donald Trump was trying to shore up support for the bill at a dinner at the White House. The group of attendees included Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama, Steve Daines of Montana and James Lankford of Oklahoma. The three, like Moran, are reliably conservative senators who generally vote with McConnell on major bills.
The inability of McConnell to convince the senators to hold off on publicly opposing the bill highlighted the huge chasm that had developed between the efforts of the leadership to pass a bill and the willingness of rank and file senators to agree to something they had serious reservations about.
Also in attendance at the White House meeting was Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who chairs the Senate health committee and who has been heavily involved in crafting the bill. An aide told CNN before the meeting that even Alexander could not commit to voting for the bill.
In fact, an ongoing CNN whip count showed only a handful of Republicans fully supporting the bill, many of them members of the elected leadership and chairman of other committees negotiating the bill.
The CNN count showed a whopping 41 of the 52 GOP senators unwilling to commit to either the motion to proceed on the bill, a key procedural vote to begin debate, or the bill itself.
Prior to Monday, there were two other Senate Republicans who had said they would vote against the revised health care bill: Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Susan Collins of Maine. This meant McConnell could not afford even one more opposing senator.
Over the weekend, McCain’s office revealed that the veteran senator had surgery to remove a blood clot from above his eye, forcing him to stay back at home in Arizona. Shy one “yes” vote on the motion to proceed, the majority leader announced that he would “defer” consideration of the health care bill while his colleague recovered.
Now, with the announcement from Moran and Lee, even if McCain were to return to Washington, McConnell would be unable to move his legislation to the Senate floor.
McConnell had hoped that Lee — who had opposed the first version of the Senate bill — would be won over by the addition of an amendment spearheaded by Sen. Ted Cruz. The provision would allow some insurers to offer cheaper and skimpier plans unregulated under Obamacare.
But while it was enough to win Cruz’s support, the amendment — which Lee said was not exactly what he had asked for — couldn’t change Lee’s mind.
“In addition to not repealing all of the Obamacare taxes, it doesn’t go far enough in lowering premiums for middle class families; nor does it create enough free space from the most costly Obamacare regulations,” Lee said in a statement.
The fresh defections Monday night had Republican aides wondering whether the floodgates were about to open.
“Nobody wanted to be the third ‘no,'” one GOP aide said. Now that there are four “no” senators, the number could grow very quickly and potentially open the door “to a whole stream of other ‘no’ votes,” the source added.