Sen. Lindsey Graham offered a eulogy for the GOP’s Obamacare repeal effort on Tuesday, but seized on one bright spot as a reason not to give up after a parade of health care disappointments.
During a closed-door party meeting to discuss their terms of surrender, he told fellow Republicans that Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who opposed repeal over the summer, said she’d be open to his plan under other conditions, according to GOP senators in the room.
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The decision on Tuesday not to vote on the Graham-Cassidy bill marked the fourth Obamacare repeal bill failure since the summer began. But Republicans say they’re not going to stop, and Murkowski’s decision not to oppose the bill provided a small victory in an otherwise painful defeat.
“Today to me, it’s not a matter of if, it’s now when,” Graham said of repealing the Affordable Care Act. “Because this idea makes sense. Let’s say we fail. Let’s say we continue to fail. You’ve seen the damage done to the party, donors, people upset. The good news is I see enthusiasm for the first time among Republicans about an alternative to Obamacare.”
Graham’s positive spin comes just two weeks after he and Sen. Bill Cassidy had to publicly plead with President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to get on board with a last-gasp Obamacare bill. They then went on a legislative binge, running around Washington to lobby the White House senators and conservative groups to at least not kill their effort.
The Graham-Cassidy push was aided by “the fact this wasn’t a leadership exercise,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP senator.
At one point, the bill seemed to have a real chance of success. And then it ran into the same hurdles that killed every other GOP health plan. Ultimately, a number of Senate Republicans remain wary of transforming the U.S. health system in such a haphazard process — especially with plans to make deep cuts to Medicaid and roll back protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
And yet the sudden spurt of momentum behind Graham-Cassidy, once considered a long shot, underscores how nervous Republicans are about facing voters in 2018 without fulfilling their top campaign promise or having much of a legislative record.
What hasn’t changed is that there are three hard “nos” against Obamacare repeal: Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Susan Collins of Maine, not to mention other quietly skeptical senators.
In fact, Graham’s best friend, McCain, turned out to be more out of reach than the moderate Murkowski.
The Arizona senator left a closed-door meeting of Senate Republicans on Tuesday holding an article listing the problems his state would see if the bill became law, as he grumbled to reporters about the rushed process to write the bill.
“There was no point. Everyone knows where I am,” McCain said Tuesday in an interview. “I’ve said incessantly I want hearings, I want votes, I want input.”
Both Graham and Cassidy say they merely ran out of time. Other Republicans say the effort was thwarted by bad information — early drafts had errors or misleading information — and last-minute changes that made members uncomfortable about what they’d be voting on.
“I can’t be on CNN defending something if it’s in its 27th iteration when I think it’s the third iteration. That’s not the way I do business,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “I don’t even know what the last version looked like.”
Graham told his Republican colleagues in the closed-door meeting Tuesday that Murkowski “likes the idea of sending the money to Alaska and getting the hell out of the way. But the process and the constant changes just made getting her vote impossible at this point,” according to a Republican senator in the room.
And so, Senate Republicans succumbed to the reality Tuesday that despite getting close to fulfilling their seven-year-old campaign pledge, they wouldn’t have time to rally the final votes before the procedural power to pass legislation with only a majority expires on Saturday.
And Murkowski’s position gives Republicans enough latitude to say that Obamacare repeal is not dead, simply on the back burner, as they focus on scoring a legislative win with tax reform.
Murkowski said Tuesday she could “get behind” the idea of block granting health care funds to the states, but she trashed a “hard deadline and lousy process.”
“The U.S. Senate cannot get the text of a bill on a Sunday night, then proceed to a vote just days later, with only one hearing – and especially not on an issue that is intensely personal to all of us,” she said in a statement.
Vice President Mike Pence told Republicans on Tuesday that they need to repeal Obamacare by the end of this Congress, GOP senators said, ensuring that the Obamacare debate will be part of the 2018 mid-term elections, just like it was in every election since 2010.
But unless the Senate math shifts, Republicans are no closer to 50 votes than they were on the July evening when McCain dramatically ended the previous GOP repeal effort. And after Collins confirmed on Monday that she’s the third Republican to oppose the bill, its fate was sealed.
“It took 18 months for them to pass Obamacare,” Graham said of Democrats. “It’s gonna take us a while for us to replace it.”
The discussion at the closed-door GOP meeting Tuesday was short on health care and long on tax reform. It seemed that after talking about health care for four months, there wasn’t much left to go over and most Republicans had all come to the same conclusion: Another failed vote would only heighten the bad vibes in the party. A vote McConnell’s office said could happen this week was pulled.
Cassidy and Graham first began gently pushing their proposal to turn Obamacare funding into block grants for the states in July, when Senate Republicans were previously in the throes of the Obamacare repeal effort.
“And it was appealing to people,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “Block grants are something we’ve all supported.”
That effort faded quickly as the GOP attempted a slapdash “skinny” repeal, which then failed with McCain’s dramatic opposition.
The push to repeal Obamacare took on new life after a party lunch meeting two weeks ago at the Senate GOP’s campaign headquarters. There, they were presented with a dour assessment of the party’s finances as donors rebelled against a party that had abandoned its promise.
“Failure of health care has made the problem we had worse. It’s not just [contested] primaries but donors. Let me tell you, online giving went down 40 percent after we failed on health care. Pledges to the Republican Party went down 60 percent. And I understand that,” said Graham, who cheekily called such feedback “employer assessments.”
Some Republicans were hopeful that the Senate effort would mirror the House’s multiple attempts at Obamacare repeal: After the leadership-driven effort failed, members would pick up the pieces and deliver.
“The leader felt like they ought to be able to enjoy at least a little bit of the fruits of that effort and see where it went. They kept gaining momentum, and I think there was a hope that our members that weren’t there last time were there this time,” Thune said.
But again, the effort came down to the same handful of skeptics: Murkowski, Paul, McCain, Collins. Graham and Cassidy wrote off Paul and Collins relatively quickly, assuming they would be impossible to budge. They spent much of their time trying to woo the Alaska Republican, and hoped that Graham’s friendship with McCain would be enough to move him to a “yes” vote.
Still, some Republicans held out hope.
“I always knew it was going to be hard,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). Asked if he ever thought they would triumph, he said, “Yeah, I actually did.”
Graham and Cassidy are an unlikely pair. Cassidy has been promoting Medicaid block grants for years and Graham wanted to deliver on a crucial GOP campaign pledge. Graham, never a health policy wonk, told fellow Senate Republicans during Tuesday’s lunch that he’s learned more than he wanted to about health care, according to one senator.
Graham called the recent push the “most amazing journey of my life” and insisted that the idea of block granting health care dollars to states — an idea that former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) passed on to Graham at the Senate barbershop earlier this year — would be the basis of any conservative Obamacare repeal plan in the future.
“I think we have an idea that people can rally around,” Graham said. “We now have an idea that I think Republicans understand, that the average person can understand.”
And a growing faction of Senate Republicans are becoming more emboldened despite their failures, echoing Pence’s message inside the GOP lunch on Tuesday that the push to repeal Obamacare needs to continue into next year.
“Obviously there’s a lot of discouragement about not being able to do it but there’s also a very strong attitude that we’re not going to stop trying,” Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). “We can’t. We just have to keep working at it.”