Wisconsin’s Senator Ron Johnson was giddy with euphoria at a press conference Thursday evening (July 28), grabbing the mike, waving a misleading chart on rising health premiums and jumping around like a child invited to sit at the big boys table with more highly regarded senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy.
In high pitched babble he agreed with the others that the Republican’s “skinny Obamacare repeal” was a fraud unworthy of the party, though after eight years it had become the last vehicle to repeal the ACA.
He echoed Graham’s attack that it was crazy to think it a substitute for the ACA or should ever be allowed to pass. More quietly and thoughtfully McCain chimed in, while Louisiana’s Cassidy made mixed noises seeking assurance from the House that they would not let the bill move forward but simply open the door to a conference where Republicans could hang amendments on this Christmas tree.
The senators clearly feared – correctly -- that the House would take advantage of passage and just wash its hands of the troublesome bill that forces the removal of at least 16 million consumers from the health rolls.
The senators said in one voice that without Speaker Paul Ryan’s agreement to an arduous serious conference process they were “no” votes. Think of that. They were willing to vote on a bill they all thought lousy and did not even see the text until later that night. But they wanted a promise that the vote was meaningless – an unheard of situation.
Yet as 12:53 a.m. Friday rolled around, Johnson offered a vigorous “aye” to the bill that hours earlier he said was a sham. Graham, accepting Speaker Paul Ryan’s oral assurance that there would be a conference with the House (he doesn’t understand the vagaries of Ryan’s word as well as the people of Wisconsin do), also voted yes as did Cassidy.
McCain stood alone. And stand he did, reinforcing the reason he said he returned from a sickbed in Arizona to clear the procedural way but balking at the final gimmick. It would have been easier to refuse from the start, but McCain likes his drama.
Joined by stalwart no-sayers Lisa Murkowski (despite threats from the White House) and Susan Collins, he defeated this idea 51-49, causing an early slinking off the TV screen by Vice President Mike Pence, whose tie-breaking vote was no longer needed.
Johnson also slunk away and deservedly so. The health care discussion gave him a brief moment to get too close to the sun. Now he will return to the more familiar backbench. Did anyone in Wisconsin really expect him to stand up against the GOP juggernaut?
McCain was the balance, more than the maverick of old but also the hero of the Senate ideal. The deciding vote not only elevates him in his final years but reinforces the plea for harmony that marked his return. It was also a stern rebuke from the party’s 2008 leader to the current president.
But the slim margin he represents should give the country pause. One 80 year old returning from a brain tumor spelled the common sense difference on a health care system that has helped millions, even if not liked by thousands.
Under Trump it can no longer be called Obamacare, but maybe finally the Republicans will face up to an empty promise they built their campaigns around and retreat from insisting on “repeal” to the more sensible methods of repair that the Democrats are willing to work on.
Not that the Democrats are blameless. The exaggerated attacks on Obamacare have led to some kneejerk defenses. Every time the GOP screams that the rise in premiums is killing the country, every time they dig out a family that has suffered as opposed to the many many families that have been helped, they employ the money and group-think that makes their simplicities reverberate. Too many in the nation believe it’s failing, which makes Democrats even more outspoken in reaction.
Obamacare defenders have much of it right. They know the health care exchanges only cover 7% of the consumers, so much of the raging involves few people. They recognize the main problem is the uncertainty about federal mandates that have made insurance companies skittish.
But there are good ideas they could put on the table. Single payer may be a bridge too far, but there is a lot more sympathy these days for the public option the original health care bill wanted. Unions are also seeking correction to how their self-care insurances are contributed to and cut off. There also should be an easy way to let Medicare negotiate drug prices directly with big pharma – and reassessment of how families qualify for subsidies.
The first step is to give up the myth about repeal. The next step may be to marvel at how the Democrats kept their entire team together and head into the 2018 elections showing unanimity, which stands in sharp contrast to the GOP shambles. Nor should they forget this is the people’s victory.
Trump’s infamous resistance to admit error and accept compromise (which he regards as weaknesses not democracy) stand in the way. That obstinacy is his main trait despite the obvious fact that even his rambling speeches indicate there are many parts of the ACA he likes and wants to keep. But his initial reaction after the vote indicates he will continue to attack subsidies to force failure: “As I said from the beginning, let ObamaCare implode, then deal. Watch!"
The cold water that has been splashed on the GOP seems to have missed the president. But will the GOP now react by working with the other side or pleading with their constituents to elect even more Republicans? That electorate should never forget the Republicans already have the Senate, the House and the White House. Yet they still couldn’t find a better way.
Republicans repeat the myth that Obamacare was passed in secret on Christmas Eve 2009. Even McCain has the history wrong.
They will also have to deal with Trump. He will blame them, never admit failure and probably not do the sensible thing of giving up on a bad bill.