Senate Republicans had no inkling of what they were walking into on Tuesday afternoon as they filed into the Mike Mansfield room on the Capitol’s second floor.
Mitch McConnell’s 51 colleagues, from his most junior members to his closest lieutenants, fully expected the Senate to vote this week on the Senate GOP’s wounded Obamacare repeal bill. They knew the whip count was far worse than advertised, but were ready for McConnell to either admit defeat or make a furious round of deal-making to try to win their support. They took McConnell at his word that a vote would occur, regardless of the result.
Then the Kentucky Republican shocked them all as he dispassionately informed them at the top of the meeting that the vote would be delayed, and that he would continue the painful exercise of trying to get 50 of the caucus’s 52 votes for Obamacare repeal.
Never mind that McConnell and his team had previously made clear that they did not believe letting the bill hang out over the July 4 recess would improve the result of the perilous negotiations.
“It’s different from what he said… yesterday afternoon as late as 5:30 p.m.,” said a Republican senator.
Senators left the meeting perplexed at what will come next and people close to McConnell don’t fully comprehend how his strategy will play out, according to interviews with senators, aides and Republican operatives.
Even Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), McConnell’s deputy and perhaps his closest ally, admitted that he was a “little bit” surprised at the decision. Cornyn had said the vote was on just minutes before.
“I understand it and support it. It’s important that we succeed,” Cornyn said of McConnell’s move. “This is more than just about health care, as important as that is. This is about keeping our promises and demonstrating our ability to govern.”
If the bill failed, the GOP’s base could abandon them for not following through on the party’s years-long campaign against Obamacare. It would also be harder for Republicans to pay for a sweeping tax reform plan. President Donald Trump’s agenda could be mortally wounded.
In recent days, McConnell spoke to White House aides, senators, political consultants and his sprawling Washington network built over decades in the Senate.
But he never tipped his hand on what might be coming.
Everyone in the Senate took him at his word that a vote would occur this week, which is why the decision to punt the bill was so surprising. But it’s also true that McConnell has never been the type of leader to put a bill on the floor that he knows will fail.
McConnell made his choice because he still sees a narrow path to success. “He’s not interested in coming back and having a failed vote,” said a person close to McConnell.
It will be fraught with danger while trying to balance out the demands of senators from Medicaid expansion states and hardline conservatives looking to gut Obamacare as much as possible. And his decision to delay the bill also carries great political risk because it draws out the Obamacare fight at least a couple more weeks. But he’s decided it’s a risk worth taking.
The episode was a stunning twist in the GOP’s long-running saga to roll back Obamacare.
Before the House first pulled its bill from the floor back in March, McConnell vowed that the Senate could pass a repeal bill in a week. Then he had the Senate GOP meet nearly every day of the last two months once the House finally sent him a bill in April. Now he’s trying a new tactic.
Behind closed doors Tuesday, McConnell informed the senators of his goal to strike a new deal by Friday or Saturday, with plans to have the Congressional Budget Office analyze that proposal and hold a vote soon after the recess.
CBO Director Keith Hall was also present for the meeting, and GOP senators quickly lay into the man who’s been haunting them with projections of 22 million fewer insured and short-term premium increases, according to people in attendance. It seemed to be a genuine effort by Republicans to discredit the nonpartisan referee so that the GOP’s final healthcare bill isn’t derailed by the CBO.
“CBO could stand for ‘Confusing But Obtuse,’” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) afterward.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked Hall, who was hand-picked by Republicans in 2015, how he could project millions more would be covered by Medicaid expansion in future years, wondering aloud whether the CBO could predict what was essentially a political decision left to individual states and their governors.
“I’m from the biggest potential Medicaid expansion state. And if you think Texas is expanding, you’re wrong,” chimed in Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), according to attendees of the closed-door meeting.
Cruz is one of those senators McConnell now must win over, but he may be easier than most. He’s been working well with McConnell, once his high-profile adversary, and his attack on Hall was aimed at making his colleagues feel better about the GOP leader’s bill.
McConnell and Trump must convince all but two of the following currently-opposed senators to reverse course: Conservatives Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin as well as the more centrist Susan Collins of Maine, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Rob Portman of Ohio and Dean Heller of Nevada, and surprise opponents like Jerry Moran of Kansas.
“There’s several things we’ve put on the table. And at this point there’s not much give,” Capito said. “I don’t know how, or if, we can’t get there.”
“Tinkering isn’t going to work from my perspective. There would have to be a major overhaul of the bill … to win my support,” Collins said.
A few hours before the change in schedule was announced Tuesday, negotiations were really just beginning, as Cruz visited with McConnell privately and Portman met with Vice President Mike Pence at his hideaway.
White House officials said Tuesday morning they were still angling to make deals with individual senators, hoping to deploy the $188 billion they have left over from the CBO score to pour into the bill and cut deals.
But one Republican aide involved in the process said that GOP leaders had not yet engaged in the horse-trading needed to push the bill across the finish line — a key reason McConnell called off the vote early in the week.
“The truth is, we’re not even close. This is not, like, a couple of tweaks,” the aide said.
McConnell has given the White House assurances he will bring the bill to a successful vote, and an anxious Trump has been told by top aides in the Oval Office that he could trust McConnell, according to one person familiar with the conversations.
Trump told aides and McConnell that he wanted to be involved in whipping votes, and two administration officials said he enjoyed doing so in the House.
But McConnell aides and advisers don’t think Trump can help like he could in the House.
“Trump doesn’t bring us any votes. He just doesn’t,” said one person familiar with the majority leader’s thinking.
As the whip count became more dire in recent days, the White House became increasingly concerned about the flailing Republican bill and began to ramp up its efforts and urgency toward what could be Trump’s key domestic achievement. Some, like top congressional lobbyist Marc Short and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, were not as determined to have a vote this week as McConnell initially was, according to people who spoke with them.
Trump began working the phones over the weekend. On Tuesday afternoon he hosted Paul and the two developed what Paul called a “good rapport,” a significant development considering Paul is perhaps the firmest “no” vote against the GOP’s repeal bill right now.
On Tuesday, Trump also invited the entire GOP caucus to the White House to make a personal pitch to a party that by the time of the meeting included at least eight senators who opposed the bill in its current form.
“Obviously the White House must have played some role or otherwise we wouldn’t all be trundling down there,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Still, the particulars of the Senate’s procedures will always be ultimately up to McConnell.
Some saw his delay as a positive sign, considering that the GOP leader could have simply cut bait on the bill. Instead he is willing to expend huge amounts of political capital on a bill that could easily cost the GOP seats in Congress as soon as next year.
“More time gives opportunity,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).
Others weren’t so sure. After all, if the GOP follows McConnell’s new timeline and strikes a deal heading into the recess, GOP senators will have nine days at home dealing with liberal activists, a new CBO score and more critical media coverage.
“Personally,” said Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), “I’d just as soon work through the recess.”
Eliana Johnson and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.