Senate Republican leaders announced on Tuesday afternoon that they were abruptly delaying their vote on gutting Obamacare until after the July 4 recess to—as one senior GOP aide put it—“head back to the trenches” to quietly cut deals and revise the bill in hopes of resuscitating Trumpcare in the Senate.
“If we can do this without the barrage of [negative] media attention…we can get this done with a little more time,” another aide told The Daily Beast. “[McConnell] can still thread this needle.”
If Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had gotten his way, the Republican Party would not be retreating right now. For weeks, McConnell and his team had been emphatic that the Senate should vote on the Better Care Reconciliation Act by this week’s end. The cramped timetable was all but explicitly intended to try to limit the time the opposition to the deeply unpopular measures would have to mount, and to get health care off the table before members head home to face their constituents.
But, facing defections in the Republican rank-and-file from both hardline conservatives and more moderate lawmakers, McConnell relented, telling his colleagues on Tuesday that he wants to incorporate additional changes to the bill and wait for a new Congressional Budget Office score.
It was a public acknowledgment that far too many GOP senators are deeply dissatisfied with not only the policy, but the toxic political consequences that could come if the bill passed in its current form.
As is, the bill takes a sledgehammer to Medicaid, and also does not go nearly far enough in dismantling Obamacare in the eyes of hardline holdouts like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Utah Sen. Mike Lee.
The CBO’s initial score, released Monday, estimated that around 22 million more people would lose health insurance coverage by 2026. The numbers are, at the very least, a public-relations disaster for the GOP, and the political pressure from activist groups has been intense and sustained for weeks.
Still, the White House and GOP leaders are confident they can make this a done deal with some more negotiations and tweaks. The White House, for its part, has been taking a far less aggressive and combative approach to this bill than it did with the initial House version, a failed push that had involved counterproductive threats and called bluffs.
At a late afternoon meeting with Republican senators at the White House on Tuesday, the president issued a half-hearted rallying cry to the lawmakers working to help him achieve what would be his signature legislative win.
“This will be great if we get it done, and if we don’t get it done it’s just going to be something that we’re not going to like—and that’s OK, and I understand that very well,” Trump clarified.
Even before McConnell’s decision to delay the vote, Republican senators were well aware that coming together on a bill that at least 50 of the 52 GOP senators could vote for would take more time to realistically hash out. Top Republicans acknowledged that it may take more than simply a few weeks before the entire Senate votes on a new proposal.
Moderates like Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski emerged from a Tuesday lunch meeting on the Senate bill for GOP members and, like many of her colleagues, stressed that she “certainly wasn't ready,” and welcomed a postponed vote.
Paul met with Trump at the White House earlier Tuesday and issued an ultimatum to Republican leadership just before the delay was officially announced. “[Trump] is open to making bill better,” Paul tweeted. “Is Senate leadership?”
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who along with Murkowski expressed concerns from the outset about the phase-out of the Medicaid expansion and the slashing of federal funds from Planned Parenthood, told reporters on Tuesday that she did not hear back from Republican leaders on her suggested fixes ahead of the decision to delay the vote. She was not in regular contact with the White House, aside from a discussion with Chief of Staff Reince Priebus over the weekend.
“Everybody has different concerns,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said, adding that McConnell expressed hope to his colleagues that “we can at least have an agreement on what we can get enough votes on this week, and turn to it as soon as we get back” from the July 4th recess.
A failure to follow through on health care could imperil the rest of the president’s agenda, Rubio said.
“Obviously, if you don’t do health care, your tax reform will have to be narrower,” he added.
“I think our leadership is certainly open to changes and receptive to their ideas. It has been all along—this process, we’ve had all 52 Republicans involved in it,” said Sen. John Thune, a member of Republican leadership. But he acknowledged that many in his caucus had concerns about the closed-door process by which the bill was being written and negotiated, and were frustrated that some Senate leaders, including Majority Whip John Cornyn, were pushing for a procedural vote as early as Wednesday on a bill that was drawing rebukes from more moderate members and hardline conservatives alike.
“Some of our members were concerned with the process and wanted more time. And I think this satisfies that concern,” Thune added.
McConnell told reporters that the White House has been “very much involved” and “anxious to help.” The administration’s push was evident as Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer were all spotted leaving a meeting with Senate GOP leaders earlier Tuesday.
Democrats took a minor victory lap, but all seemed to agree that their fight to defeat the “rotten” GOP bill is far from over.
“Over the next couple of weeks, we know that Leader McConnell will try to use a slush fund to buy off Republicans, cut back-room deals to try and get this thing done,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said. “So we’re going to watch this bill and all the machinations—behind closed doors as they might be—like a hawk.”
Some Republicans openly fear that more time might help destroy their chances of finally taking an ax to the Affordable Care Act, rather than assuring a Republican victory.
“The politics of this doesn’t get any easier, the longer you wait,” Thune said.