In the end, Mitch McConnell could only cross his arms and look down at the navy carpeting in the Senate chamber. His fellow Republican, John McCain, had just sunk McConnell’s last-ditch effort to repeal parts of Obamacare, and the path forward suddenly seemed to go nowhere.
“It’s time to move on,” an ashen McConnell said early Friday.
Where the Senate goes next is still a huge unknown. The failure to attract even 50 votes on a central plank of the Republican platform cast serious doubt on whether the 52 GOP senators could get their acts together on complicated issues like rewriting the tax code, spending billions on new bridges and roads, or building a costly fence on the U.S.-Mexican border. The defections on even the most modest of health care proposals were may be mild compared to the ones to come.
The stock market, which has soared on the prospect of new big-ticket legislation from Republicans, seemed to sputter on the news. Suddenly, investors were catching on that even a unified GOP government may not be able to deliver on their promises. Republican leaders are now trying to figure out what they can do to boost Wall Street’s confidence in their powers.
McConnell’s advisers said the Majority Leader was ready to cut his losses on health care. The complicated law proved more durable than he realized, and GOP lawmakers were reluctant to pass a bill that would cost millions of Americans their health care coverage. The master tactician misunderstood the deep reservations in his own caucus—so much so that one Republican Senate hopeful said it was time for McConnell to step down as leader.
“Mitch McConnell has got to go,” said Mo Brooks, a Congressman from Alabama who is running for the Senate. “He is the head of the swamp in the United States Senate.”
Brooks’ comments were not indicative of a broader mood inside GOP circles, where there remains a reservoir of goodwill for McConnell given his fundraising ability and political mind. But there are grumbles that McConnell failed to force this measure through. Even with extraordinary steps, McConnell couldn’t cajole his team to act on something members have been promising since 2010.
“If we can’t deliver on this, why would you think we can do the gnarly business of taxes?” one Republican close to McConnell said. “Everyone need to press pause and consider what we need to do, what we can do, and at what cost to everyone involved. We cannot fall down again.”
These were the questions dominating conversations among senior Republicans by midday Friday. Voters were told for years that if only Republicans had control of the House, the Senate and the White House, Obamacare would be a thing of history. Delivering proved harder than they had realized.
As President Donald Trump fumed on Twitter and called for the Senate to change its rules so that they could pass all legislation with a mere 50 votes, Republicans at the Capitol rolled their eyes at his tweets. “We had 49 (yes votes) last night,” said one top aide to Senate Republicans. “What he’s asking for won’t make any difference, so we’re not going to indulge him.”
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, were taking a victory lap after unifying to stop the repeal of Obamacare. In the process, they sustained health care for millions of Americans, yes. But many of them also realize the law is under incredible pressure and has flaws that need fixing. It’s unlikely Democrats would earn any meaningful Republican support for their bid to prop up the law, and some inside the Democratic caucus braced for inaction until at least 2019, when a new Senate takes office.
Taken as a whole, the last week has proven just how fractured the Senate Republicans have become, which has imposed limits on its leaders’ powers. McConnell promised his colleagues that the bill they were asked to support wouldn’t be the final product, and changes would be made when the House and Senate sat down to hammer out differences.
But those assurances were insufficient for the likes of Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who insisted that they would not vote to hurt constituents in their rural states—even in the face of intense pressure from the Trump Administration.
Perhaps the outcome of the vote was the best many Republicans could have hoped for. Consider Florida, where more than 1.5 million people were added to insurance rolls between 2010 and 2015, according to an analysis from the Urban Institute. In Texas, that number was 1.7 million. And in Ohio, the tally was 630,000. The Republicans who represent those states in the Senate would have faced harsh campaign ads had those voters lost their coverage. Some may still.
Which is why McConnell was eager to turn the page. Exhausted and frustrated, the typically staid Kentuckian had little to say on Friday about the defeat. He was disappointed in the votes by Collins and Murkowski, but deeply hurt by the decision of McCain to join the opposition. (McCain’s state added 391,000 residents to insurance roles, according to that Urban Institute report.) Nothing about the effort left McConnell feeling satisfied, and he is considering his next moves carefully. If there’s anything McConnell enjoys, it’s devising strategy. Typically his shrewd plotting pays off. But not this week.