When senators give speeches on the ornate Senate floor, they often address dozens of empty antique chairs. But that was not the case Tuesday afternoon, as John McCain stood before nearly all his colleagues just after the bare minimum number of Republican senators voted to proceed on a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system.
But many of the same Republicans who voted to move the process forward weren’t happy party leaders had kept them in the dark until a mere hour before they cast one of the most controversial votes of their careers.
“I don’t know what I’m voting on yet,” Republican Sen. Ron Johnson told reporters hours before the vote. Johnson ended up casting the 50th vote, pushing the legislation over the finish line thanks to a tie-break from Vice President Mike Pence – but not before getting in what appeared to be a heated exchange with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor.
Their debate was cut short when Sen. McCain – pale and newly scarred from his recent surgery for a brain tumor – walked onto the floor to a bipartisan standing ovation. With the former Republican presidential candidate and POW giving a thumbs up, Johnson said he felt pressured to vote in the affirmative as well.
“You always had your options,” Johnson told reporters. “That would have been a pretty tough no vote” coming right after the Arizona senator, “so I was happy to join Sen. McCain.”
That may not sit well with Johnson’s Wisconsin voters, which may be why he informed McConnell he needed to have a seat at the table as the health care debate rolls on.
“I wanted to express to him that I want to be as positive an influence and provide as much positive input [as possible] into a better result,” Johnson told reporters after the vote. Two Republicans – Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski – opposed the measure, along with the entire Democratic caucus, which was completely locked out of the GOP’s secret negotiations over the past few weeks.
“We haven’t even seen what they’re going to do. We have no clue,” a frustrated Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin vented to reporters. “To do what we just did and have no clue where we’re going doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s not the way I understand the process should have ever worked or definitely should work now.”
McCain backed up Manchin’s call for open hearings in his fiery speech following the vote, also noting he opposes the legislation in its current form.
“The Obama administration and congressional Democrats shouldn’t have forced through Congress without any opposition support a social and economic change as massive as Obamacare. And we shouldn’t do the same with ours,” McCain said, as a red-faced McConnell sat listening to the scolding. McCain excoriated his colleagues on both sides of the aisle for becoming bitterly partisan in the last few years. “Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood,” he said.
McConnell later defended the process. “I certainly agree with [McCain] that the parties need to come together,” the majority leader told reporters. “Some issues are just more partisan than others, and we can all stipulate that health care has not been a subject of bipartisanship over the last seven years.”
Now the real repeal effort gets underway. The reason Republican leaders could pass the bill with a mere simple majority – as opposed to a 60-vote, filibuster proof one – is because they used a budget rule call reconciliation. That comes with its own risks, because now any senator will be allowed to offer any amendment to the bill he or she likes. This so-called vote-a-rama process is expected to begin around Thursday. Meanwhile, party leaders have no idea what proposals will be offered that can garner the support of even 50 of their rank-and-file members, and they’re being mum on the order that a slew of competing proposals will be voted on.
“It’s impossible to predict the sequence,” Sen. John Cornyn, the number-two Republican in the Senate, told a throng of reporters before predicting more than 100 different amendments will be offered by members of both parties. “We’re going to be doing a lot of voting this week. I hope you all eat your Cheerios.”