If the Cassidy-Graham Bill – the latest legislation to end Obamacare in name if not in principle – fails in the Senate this week, the primary blame falls on the shoulders of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. For several years, he played a purely political game of opposing the failing Affordable Care Act (ACA). The Republicans passed bill after bill to repeal and replace knowing that President Obama would veto any and all such legislations.
Since there was no expectation that any of that legislation would actually become law, there was no reason to iron out the details. The purpose of the legislation was simply to register justifiable Republican displeasure with the ACA.
It was good politics since polls showed that two-thirds of the people were also displeased with the law. It was not working as promised. Premiums were increasing, fewer and fewer insurance plans were available, millions of people remained ineligible, and millions were not able to keep their doctor. It was not economically sustainable.
Relying on the politics of opposition, congressional Republicans were only focusing on repeal – not replacement. The leadership left that for another day. Contrary to Democrat claims that the Republicans had no alternative plan, the GOP actually had several – and therein lies the rub. There was no plan that appealed to or was even sellable to all the Republicans.
With the election of Donald Trump, McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan burst forth with confident predictions of the certain repeal and replacement of Obamacare as the first order of business. In their minds it was a done deal. But even then, they had not considered the specifics of replacement. They did not have a consensus within the GOP caucus. In fact, they had deep divisions they should have easily recognized.
Two of the most seasoned legislators in Congress pushed forward with a boneheaded strategy that was doomed to failure. They never took a head count on the various plans to see what was passable BEFORE they moved legislation. With only a two-vote majority in the Senate and the predictable unified opposition of the congressional Democrats, they knew they could not afford to lose more than two votes. They needed almost unanimous agreement from the Republican caucus – something that is a major challenge on almost any issue.
The Democrats, with the help of the media, were able to seize the public relations high ground. Exaggerated claims about the number of people who might lose coverage – buoyed by a dubious analysis from the liberal Democrats still running the Congressional Budget Office – suddenly made the ACA more popular than the replacement. That 60 percent who did not like Obamacare now disliked the Republican versions even more.
Recognizing the problem in the House, Speaker Ryan pulled the legislation on the eve of an anticipated losing vote and brought it back for successful passage at a later date. But what the House passed was totally unacceptable to McConnell and others.
McConnell, once considered among the craftiest legislators in Congress, then embarked on a strategy that was more befitting a freshman senator. He simply used the arcane rules of the Senate in an attempt to pass a bill without hearings. But still, he moved ahead without the votes. He ignored the shortfall in what may have been an arrogant belief that he could bring the dissident few into the fold.
Further damaging the effort, McConnell, unlike Ryan, proceeded with a failed vote. It is almost unheard of for a congressional leader to proceed with a vote that they already know is doomed to fail. It not only made future passage more difficult but tended to make the GOP effort on Obamacare look like a political version of the Keystone Kops.
Now, we are on the eve of yet another vote to replace Obamacare (sort of), and again the outcome is somewhere between uncertain and another defeat. The timing of this vote is critical since the Senate will return to what is called “regular order” in a few days. That means it will take a supermajority of 60 votes to replace and repeal.
It also means that if President Trump is going to pass legislation to fix the flaws in Obamacare and redirect it from its downward trajectory, he will need to cut a deal with the Democrats – something he is perfectly capable of doing as proven in his debt ceiling deal with Democrat leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.
Of course, McConnell would not be facing this dilemma if it were not for one maverick senator, John McCain. If there is truly a bad actor in all this, it is the senior senator from Arizona. While three senators – Murkowski of Alaska, Collins of Main and McCain played the leading opposition roles, the first two at least articulated a mix of principled and political sound arguments against the bill. They both hail from states where the Republican legislation could have its greatest negative impact. Still, they came to office on a platform that had promised to repeal and replace Obamacare as one of its key provisions.
Senator McCain, however, stands out as the venal hypocrite that he is. Contrary to Murkowski and Collins, McCain’s home state of Arizona has experienced some of the worst impacts of Obamacare – with premiums skyrocketing and coverage shrinking.
Since the enactment of Obamacare, McCain has been on the repeal and replace bandwagon until this year. In his 2016 reelection campaign, he repeatedly pledged to support legislation to lay Obamacare to rest. He indicated that he would take his lead from Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, who subsequently endorsed the bill. McCain still remains a “no” vote.
If McConnell allows a losing vote to go forward or even if he has to pull the vote in the face of certain defeat, the bungling of the health care issue is sufficient reason for McConnell to step down from Senate leadership. If he cannot produce victories for clearly the most powerful political party in America, there is no case that can be made for his continued leadership.
Larry Horist is a conservative activist with an extensive background in public policy and political issues. Clients of his consulting firm have included such conservative icons as Steve Forbes and Milton Friedman, and he has served as a consultant to the White House under Presidents Nixon and Reagan. He has testified as an expert witness before numerous legislative bodies, including the U. S. Congress and lectured at Harvard University, Northwestern University, Florida Atlantic University, Knox College and Hope College. An award winning debater, his insightful and sometimes controversial commentaries appear frequently on the editorial pages of newspapers across the nation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.