The floor of the United States Senate is not known for riveting drama. Typically the outcome is already known before Senators vote for any given bill. Recently, with the exception of rare cases, most ballots are cut neatly down party lines. This statement is especially true in the battle of the American health care system. The contentious battle came to an end last Friday, July 28th on the vote of the “skinny repeal” of Obamacare. The drama came in the form of one vote cast by Senator John McCain of Arizona caught the attention of the nation.
To understand why his vote was so significant one must understand what has been happening in regards to the American health care system over the last seven years. When President Barack Obama took office on January 20th 2009 he promised to “fix the broken Healthcare system”. He used his widespread popularity along with a majority in the House of Representatives and Senate to immediately push for healthcare reform.
President Obama had quite a fight in front of him. Upon his presidential victory in 2008 Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell decreed that the Republicans would hinder all attempts to pass anything offered by the Democrats. With GOP unwilling to cooperate the Democrats pushed forward to pass what would become the ACA, or Affordable Care Act.
The starting in the House of Representatives as “Service Members Home Ownership Tax Act of 2009” the bill morphed into the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009”. The passage of the law through both houses was done with zero Republican votes. Several amendments were issued to satisfy some of the more conservative Democrats and the bill was signed into law on March 23rd 2010.
Shortly after the ACA became the law the Republicans began the war to kill it. Republicans voted over sixty times over seven years attempting to repeal the law. Although never succeeding, the GOP used the attempts to rally their base. Soon a new arm of the Republican Party was formed: the “Tea Party”. The Tea Party and their far right conservative ideals swept the midterm elections of 2010.
With newfound power in both houses the GOP turned up the heat. As time passed it was clear that they needed to alter their stance on Obamacare. No longer could they simply repeal the law for that was no longer politically viable. They needed to change their stance to “Repeal and Replace” for it was not long until the very people who hated the ACA was using the ACA.
Using the slogan “Repeal and Replace” as their lightning rod issue for seven years the Republicans continued to gain power. The GOP gained and retained seats in both houses as the Democrats lost. Although many other hot topics continue to ebb and flow through the national conversation, Obamacare remains at the forefront of contention.
With Donald Trump’s win in the 2016 election and the Republicans achieving a supermajority in both the House and Senate, the Democrats despaired. Their one outstanding achievement of the last eight years was looking to be in imminent danger. Donald Trump swore that during hisfirst 100 days he was going to fulfill the promise of the last seven years and finally “Repeal and Replace”.
The first volley was on a midnight session on January 11 2017. The Senate voted on a “budget blueprint” which would allow the GOP to chip away at the ACA without the threat of Democratic intervention. The “blueprint” did not remove any of the reforms but did cut funding for many services offered by Obamacare. Although it did not change the law, it achieved a similar result.
The next attack came on March 6 2017 with the American Health Care Act. Although extremely unpopular with an overwhelming majority of Americans it was expected to pass with little problem. Unfortunately for the GOP neither Trump nor House majority leader Paul Ryan could unify their party to pass the bill. The Tea Party believed it kept too much of the ACA and the moderates would not tolerate removal of those provisions. Ultimately the bill passed the house by a narrow margin.
Now in the hands of the Senate, Mitch McConnell gathered several loyal senators and rewrote the bill behind closed doors over several days. Again, the initial attempt failed to garner enough votes so McConnell retracted the bill. The next attempt came as a clean repeal with no replace,
this also failed. Finally he and several senators made several deals over a lunch hour and rushed a “Skinny repeal” bill to the Senate floor. This was the final attempt by the Republicans to fulfill their promise to their constituents to “Repeal and Replace”. This time it had to pass.
Back to the early morning of last Friday. Mitch McConnell stood with his arms crossed and smiling sure of his win as he watched the votes cast. Two Republicans, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, were known to be ‘no’s, but he had already accounted for that. The vote would be an even 50/50 split, which would allow Vice President Mike Pence to cast his tie breaking vote. The stage was set for victory.
There were rumblings earlier that things might not go as planned. McCain was seen speaking to VP Pence before the vote and several Democrats seemed know more than they let on. Shortly before 2am McCain walked up, faced McConnell, extended his arm and gave a thumbs down. “No!” He announced, then turned around and left the Senate floor. The entire exchange took all of 19 seconds and the Republican attempt to follow through on their promise to the American people died.
The shock of the nation was not just wrapped up in the 19 seconds CNN, MSN and Fox are focusing on. This singular moment had been building up over the last seven years as Republicans used Obamacare to whip their base into a frenzy. They now have to go back to their districts to explain what happened. They could not follow through with their commitments, even with a supermajority in both houses. The true ramifications of McCain’s “No” and McConnell’s failure will not be seen until later this year in November when mid-term elections are held.