Republicans Tried and Failed to Repeal Obamacare in the Dead of Night

A surprise no vote from John McCain derailed the party's health care efforts, at least for now

Sen. John McCain after casting the third no vote on the GOP's so-called "skinny repeal" bill. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty

There's an unspoken rule in the contemporary U.S. Senate: Never take a bill to the floor unless you know you have the votes. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, once lauded as a master of the Senate largely for gumming up the works when Obama occupied the Oval Office, broke that rule early Friday morning as his health care bill fell just one vote short of passing.

The final no vote from GOP Sen. John McCain came as a shock to many – as Republicans inside the chamber gasped and Democrats clapped and offered muted, senatorial cheers.

Earlier in the week, the surprise return of McCain, who was recently diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer, sent shockwaves across Washington and the nation as his vote put the GOP bill on the Senate floor. But he was mum on his way to the floor in the early hours of Friday morning, just before casting one of the most controversial and important votes of his storied career.

"Have you decided how you'll vote?" members of the press corps, scrambling to keep up with the senior Arizona senator, asked in the basement of the Capitol.

"Yes," McCain said.

"How?" everyone clamored simultaneously.

"Wait for the show," he responded – a comment that drew derision and mockery for the former POW on Twitter and among the dozens of loud protesters outside the Capitol.

Just hours later, after the vote, as many Republican senators brushed reporters aside with a brisk "no comment," the former GOP presidential candidate left the Capitol to cheers and shouts of "Thank you!" from those same protesters.

"Did it feel good at the end to make the vote you made?" a reporter asked through McCain's entourage of staffers guarding their boss.

"Please," the man once known as "the Maverick" said angrily. "I do my job as a senator."

McCain joined two Republican colleagues – Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, who received threats of retribution from the Trump administration this week, and Maine's Susan Collins – in voting against the so-called skinny repeal effort, which was written Thursday over lunch and only unveiled around 10:00 p.m. In doing so, they appear to have derailed their party's seven-year campaign to "repeal and replace" Obamacare, at least for now.

McCain's vote stunned many of his GOP colleagues. "I don't think we knew until he did it," Sen. Shelley Moore Capito told reporters after the vote.

"I doubt that it's the end, but it's a big setback," a long-faced Sen. Pat Toomey offered before being asked how the party moves forward. "We're going to have to regroup and figure that out."

"It's sad," an exhausted looking Sen. Ron Johnson tells Rolling Stone. "It's just sad."

Johnson predicted the legislation will once again rise from the ashes: "No, it's not dead because Obamacare is a mess and so we're going to have to start working on it again. We're going to have to pick up the pieces and keep going."

Democrats, along with many Republicans who in the end supported the measure, had decried the secretive process GOP leaders used to craft the bill; they were joined by numerous Senate-watchers and process wonks who were disgusted with how the legislation took shape. It saw three different public iterations before the last-minute release of the somewhat stripped-down Health Care Freedom Act, which included a modified provision to defund Planned Parenthood and would have resulted in 16 million more people being without coverage.

Now the minority party is hoping to also get a seat at the table.

"It's about time that we start working together, as opposed to the process we've seen right now, which has been a betrayal of Senate tradition," Democratic Sen. Cory Booker tells Rolling Stone after the vote. "There's a lot of good will and we can work together, but this process was just outrageous from the beginning – with no outside support, without outside experts and, no doubt, any kind of bipartisan input."

One of the last remaining moderates in the Senate, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, has already tried to spark a bipartisan compromise, or at least dialogue, on health care. He thinks the GOP bill's failure opens the door for those talks to expand.

"There are things that ... I am going to look at and I think other Democrats are too," Manchin says while leaving the Capitol. "We've been prepared for this and we've had some talks that hopefully gives us a pathway forward – we're hoping."

But many Republicans, including Majority Leader McConnell, don't seem to be taking those olive branches seriously – at least not yet.

"There are going to be Democrats trumpeting tonight as a victory for a policy that is collapsing and failing the American people," Republican Sen. Ted Cruz told reporters outside the Senate chamber. "But the democratic process sometimes takes time."

Sen. John McCain returned to the Senate to vote on legislation that would dismantle Obamacare. Watch his speech here.