Capitol Attitude

Senate health bill pulled – but ‘don’t count Senator McConnell out’

Chad Pergram

All eyes focused on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., this week. McConnell faced mounting opposition from his own ranks on an effort to repeal and replace ObamaCare. Few saw a way out of this legislative cul-de-sac.

A veteran Senate aide had few ideas as to how McConnell could jimmy free the necessary votes to pass the Republican health care bill. But the aide offered this gem:

“McConnell’s a lot like Wesley Snipes in ‘Passenger 57,’” observed the staffer. “Always bet on McConnell.”

And sure enough, that’s what everyone did. Democrats and Republicans alike. Never underestimate a parliamentary tactician and legislative mastermind like Mitch McConnell. Foes do so at their own peril.

“I don’t count Senator McConnell out,” conceded Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

“I expect to have the support to get it done. And yes, we will vote this week,” predicted Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas.

But it never looked like McConnell even made it to the casino.

Senate Republicans appeared uncharacteristically jittery last week, hours before McConnell unveiled the GOP health care benchmark to a closed-door conclave.

“Until you see it in writing, you don’t know if it’s real,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., of provisions that were promised in the discussion draft. “Until it’s there, it ain’t there.”

Everyone knew that Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, could be a swing vote on the health care plan. A coterie of reporters briefly chased Murkowski last Wednesday night, asking if she wanted to talk about health care.

“Not really,” hollered the Alaska Republican over her shoulder as she disappeared into the Senate chamber.

Here’s McConnell’s gambit. Republicans hold 52 Senate seats. The leader aimed to cobble together a coalition of 50 GOP senators who would vote yes on the bill and deploy Vice President Pence to break the tie. McConnell could only lose two GOPers and still thread the needle. But it didn’t take long for Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Mike Lee, R-Utah; Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Ron Johnson, R-Wis.; and Dean Heller, R-Nev., to oppose the health care package.

The key was not whether McConnell had the votes to pass the bill, but whether the leader had the votes just to start debate on the plan. The Senate requires 51 yeas on what’s called the “motion to proceed” to the health care bill. But McConnell lacked even that meager support.

Consider this:

Republicans knew that Democrats would filibuster a bill to repeal and replace ObamaCare. Conventional legislation needs 60 votes to break a filibuster to start debate and 60 votes to halt debate. McConnell knew Democrats would block the GOP at every turn, as Republicans only commanded 52 votes. But there’s a way around that. A special process called “budget reconciliation” lowers the threshold to a simple majority (51 yeas) to bring a bill to the floor. Budget reconciliation turns off most filibusters. But you still have to figure out a way to get onto the bill.

Still, a motion to proceed – even to a budget reconciliation plan – is “debatable” in the Senate. That means it’s subject to a filibuster. In this case, a Republican filibuster. Four GOP senators announced they opposed beginning debate on the health care plan: Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, joined Paul, Johnson and Heller in threatening to short-circuit McConnell’s effort to bring the bill to the floor. Most filibusters don’t imitate Jimmy Stewart talking all night. Filibusters often unfold when a senator or a coalition of senators threatens to keep the Senate from advancing to a given subject – such as on the “motion to proceed.”

You cannot change congressional mathematics. McConnell never had the votes to even begin the debate, felled by a GOP filibuster.

This of course was an irony of ironies. House and Senate Republicans went to great lengths to assemble a budget reconciliation vehicle under which to repeal and replace ObamaCare. They feared a Democratic filibuster. Yet a Republican filibuster derailed the health care bill.

For now.

McConnell and a small group of Republican senators prepped their health care plan for weeks away from public view. Despite the “repeal and replace” mantra of the past eight years, the GOP measure still isn’t baked.

An indictment of McConnell?

“No,” he replied when asked.

Why not?

“It’s an ongoing discussion,” replied McConnell “Several (senators) want more time.”

Schumer knew his GOP counterpart was struggling.

“Even his legislative wizardry is having a rough, rough time,” observed Schumer of McConnell’s plight.

Part of McConnell’s conundrum stems from which senators are noes. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; Rob Portman, R-Ohio; and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., joined the other five nay votes on Tuesday. The group of eight nays cuts across the political spectrum -- from conservative Republicans to moderates. One source told Fox News it would be “easier” if the problems were “all on one side.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., faced a similar phenomenon when the House tried to approve its health care measure. Ryan would fix one issue to court conservatives yet lose moderates. But here’s the difference: the margins are wider in the House. McConnell has a turning radius of two votes. That’s a challenge.

It’s no surprise that Cornyn likened the exercise to trying to keep a colony of bullfrogs in a wheelbarrow. You get one bullfrog back in the wheelbarrow and another one jumps out.

So it’s back to work. President Trump invited GOP senators to the White House Tuesday afternoon. The president strategically positioned Collins on one side of him and Murkowski on the other. A pessimist might view Tuesday’s meeting as a face-saving effort for the president. But Trump may have one ace in the hole: McConnell and his parliamentary finesse.

Just like betting against Wesley Snipes in “Passenger 57.”

“I wouldn’t bet against Mitch McConnell,” argued Paul Ryan Tuesday morning.

And that’s a wager the president and congressional Republicans are still willing to take.

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.