WASHINGTON — The divided Senate Republican majority failed Wednesday to muster the votes to pass its longtime goal of a complete repeal of Obamacare, handing it a second setback this week as it debates and attempts to shape legislation to dismantle the 2010 health care law.
The amendment, which resurrected a 2015 bill to repeal Obamacare but delay it for two years to give time to lawmakers replace it, failed in a 45-55 vote, with seven Republicans — including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — voting against it even though six of them voted for it when it passed in 2015.
It was the second defeat for Republicans in this week’s 20-hour period of debate and amendments to dismantle Obamacare after nine Republican senators late Tuesday defected and sank Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s repeal and replace Obamacare bill.
President Donald Trump, who has pressured the Senate to pass a repeal bill and criticized Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) for voting against it, was upbeat, telling Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) at a jobs announcement: “I think we’re doing OK, Ron. I’m hearing good things.”
But Trump added, “We better get that done, fellas. Please. We need that so badly.”
The Senate Republicans’ inability to pass either measure prompted lawmakers and aides to begin talking about a minimal partial repeal bill, dubbed a “skinny repeal,” so the Senate could pass something to send to the House for negotiations on a final package.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price on CNBC urged McConnell and Republican leaders to adopt a minimal repeal bill just to get it passed.
“What we need to do in the Senate is figure out the lowest common denominator is, what gets us to 50 votes, so we can move forward on health care legislation,” Price said.
But that approach is not expected to be brought up until after the Senate on Thursday continues debate and considers amendments filed by both sides, and possibly starts a series of quick votes in what is called a vote-a-rama that could last into the evening.
“Ultimately, we want to get legislation to finally end the failed Obamacare status quo through Congress and to the president’s desk for his signature,” McConnell said. “This certainly won’t be easy. Hardly anything in this process has been.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned Republicans concerned about deep cuts to Medicaid that skinny repeal “is equal to full repeal” since if passed it will go to a conference with the House and could emerge as repeal legislation.
On Wednesday night, the procedural jousting continued, with Democrats hinting they could file many amendments after the 20 hours of debate ends.
Schumer cited reports that McConnell has a “secret” bill and said Democrats wouldn’t file any amendments until the majority leader reveals it. A McConnell aide called that an “empty threat” and said they hope Democrats don’t offer any amendments.
But motions by Democrats to send the Republican legislation to the Finance Committee for three days lost in party line votes as Republicans stuck together.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the sponsor of the amendment voted on Wednesday, had urged all of his party’s senators who voted for the repeal and delay bill to vote for it again. The Republican-controlled Congress passed it in 2015, but President Barack Obama vetoed it.
“Today’s vote is a major disappointment to people who were promised full repeal,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska), who backed the amendment. “We still have a long, long way to go — both in health policy and in honesty.”
But Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), one of the six Republicans to switch votes, argued that the time for a two-year delay in replacing Obamacare had come and gone.
“In 2015, we could have waited two years for relief, but we cannot now,” he said in a statement saying his state’s individual market that serves 350,000 people is near collapse and that his constituents aren’t comfortable with 22 million people nationally losing insurance coverage.
Republicans voting no were Alexander, McCain, Murkowski, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine voted against the measure both times.