The act of creating legislation is often ugly, but it rarely presents the drama that was on display late Thursday night and into the early hours of Friday as Republicans attempted to follow through on their threat to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It provided more tension, pathos, and reversals than any film playing this summer.
Early in the evening, Republicans introduced multiple variants and amendments. Some of these, like a cynically-offered version of a single-payer “Medicare for all” plan, were presented purely for the purpose of embarrassing Democrats. Others, like an amendment permanently doing in the tax on the kind of “Cadillac” insurance plans often provided to executives, sailed through on party line votes in an apparent preview of the main event to come.
As the evening stretched on, Democrats were increasingly frustrated that the bill that was to be voted on still had not been made available. And from the Republicans that rose to speak, it was impossible to discern even a hint of what could be in that bill. Republicans repeated—over and over and over—a set of talking points. Remember when President Obama promised you could keep your doctor? Remember … Nothing from the new bill. Meanwhile, Democrats stood and delivered increasingly impassioned pleas to simply see what was coming.
Finally, at 10 PM, Republicans handed over their “Skinny Repeal” bill. It was no more than eight pages of legislation, drafted over a not-so-long lunch. Two of those pages were devoted to blocking access to Planned Parenthood. Among the rest were provisions that not only did in the individual mandate, but stripped the responsibility of businesses of any size to provide health care to workers. As Democrats tried to process this bill, Republican Senator Mike Enzi was awarded the final hour of “debate” before the vote.
In a display of infuriating hubris and disdain both both his colleagues and the people whose lives were on the line, Enzi used that time not to discuss the bill, but to conduct a kind of mini-filibuster in which he droned on, and on, mixing lies about the ACA with discourses on the joys of Segways and asides about Bill Clinton. Multiple Democrats rose during Enzi’s credulity-straining ramble, but Enzi refused to yield the floor. Not for questions about the bill. Not for points of order. Not for anything. While Enzi talked, Mike Pence entered the Senate and Republican leadership gathered and grinned. Enzi’s talk seemed to be purposely designed to put a heavy bootheel on Democrats throats and grind in the fact that Republicans had this thing in the bag. Enzi openly declared that his purpose was to simply use up the the remaining time even if it passed “in silence.”
Finally, Enzi’s fat middle finger to America ended and Mitch McConnell moved the Senate immediately into the closing act. Democrats begged for just five more minutes to discuss the bill and, incredibly, Republican Whip John Cornyn objected. After a bit of back and forth, Ron Wyden and Chuck Schumer split the final few minutes in a desperate appeal to stop the bill that would drive through the healthcare system leaving nothing but disaster in its wake. As the final votes began, the outcome seemed the very definition of a foregone conclusion.
First up was a vote on a motion by Democrat Patty Murray that would have taken the less-than-a-day-old bill back to committee for review and debate. During this vote, Senators who had not been on the floor for Enzi’s mean-spirited slap-down of Democrats finally made their appearance. Among them was John McCain who entered the room smiling and apparently joking with those he passed.
Any idea that there might be some last minute Republican revolt against the so-called Skinny Repeal seemed to be dashed when the results of this vote also played out precisely along party lines. Even Republicans like Susan Collins, who seemed sure to vote against the bill itself, voted to advance immediately to the final vote. McCain, who had given such an impassioned plea for “regular order” earlier in the week, voted against the motion that would have returned the bill for exactly that.
As the numbers piled up on Murray’s vote, making Republican victory clear, Mike Pence took his seat on the podium and Republicans prepared to party.
Only … the atmosphere in the room suddenly made a noticeable switch. McCain paid a brief call on Cornyn, following which the Republican Whip was noticeably unhappy. Republicans, who had been in such a hurry that they refused Democrats five minutes more debate, held the vote on the procedural motion open for ten minutes. Fifteen. All the votes had been counted, there was nothing left to do, but McConnell didn’t gavel the motion closed.
Instead, knots of Republican leadership gathered around both John McCain and Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski. Within a few minutes, McCain actually stood up and moved over to sit with a group of Demcorats, including Schumer. From the smiles and laughter that rose from this group, the incredible seemed to be true—McCain was going to vote against the bill.
Meanwhile, Murkowski, who had already been the subject of attacks in the Senate and threats from the White House, became the focus of an intense, last-minute, increasingly desperate effort from McConnell, Cornyn, and the rest of Republican leadership. It was a moment that made C-SPAN’s fixed cameras and desperately poor sound system extra painful and viewers were left to contemplate what was actually being offered and discussed.
Even when McConnell rose to call the final vote, the outcome still seemed unclear—which wasn’t helped when that awful sound system actually cut out during the moment when McCain was delivering his vote. But in the end three Republicans—McCain, Murkowski, and Susan Collins—joined all Democrats to defeat the bill.
Mitch McConnell took to the podium to make a mumbled, depressed speech he was clearly unprepared to deliver. He stumbled through a few, repetitive sentences, saying that now Democrats would be forced to show their ideas—something Republicans had been claiming all night did not exist. A beaming Schumer was clearly ready to comply.
Finally, McConnell delivered the line “There will be no more votes tonight.”
The Skinny Repeal was dead. Obamacare was saved … for now. And an evening of high drama ended with millions of Americans breathing a sigh of relief.