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The Republican Fight to Repeal Obamacare Is ‘Dead as a Doornail.’ For Now

6 minute read

Vice President Mike Pence emerged from a lunch with Senate Republicans stone-faced, dodging questions as he beelined for the exit.

His silence made it clear the latest Senate attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act was dead, thus thwarting yet again a core Republican promise. One of the bill’s sponsors then came forward to confirm it.

“We don’t have the votes,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who along with Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina drafted the latest attempt at scrapping the seven-year-old law. “Am I disappointed? Absolutely.”

Senate leaders said the issue wasn’t the content of the Graham-Cassidy bill, which would have dismantled Medicaid expansion and other Obamacare provisions and hand the funds from those programs over to states via block grants. Graham and Cassidy were insistent that they will eventually get the votes needed to pass the legislation. Leaders said the process through which they were trying to pick the bill through, however, had given a handful of senators pause, including Arizona Sen. John McCain.

“There are 50 votes for the substance,” said Graham. “There are not 50 votes for the process.”

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that for now, the health care debate is over and the Senate now will turn its attention to another major agenda item: an ambitious rewrite of the tax code, along with tax cuts.

“We haven’t given up on changing the American healthcare system,” McConnell told reporters. “We’re not going to be able to do that this week, but it still lies ahead. We haven’t given up on that.”

As Senators waded into caucus lunches on Tuesday afternoon it was clear health care was high on the agenda — and on life support. Earlier that morning, Sen. Orrin Hatch told a group of reporters that tackling the issue was imperative. “We’ve got to get it together otherwise we’re not going to have a good system in this country.”

As he left the closed-door meeting, Hatch was clearly ready to be done with the thorny policies in health care, although what lie next is likely no easier. “We’re moving into tax reform. And we’re going to have a very, very interesting set of issues,” he said.

Republicans were visibly frustrated with the outcome. After seven years of promising to repeal the law if they could only win the majorities in the House, the Senate and the White House. Now in control of all three, the GOP still couldn’t muster the 50 votes needed to clear the Senate, even though they hold 52 seats.

“I went on national television to do my best to defend it. In the end, I didn’t know what the hell I was defending,” said Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana. “Health care is a fifth of our economy and, duh, there is a wide disagreement in our caucus about what a bill that big should contain. Since January, I’ve been hearing about the outline of the bill. This is September. I’m ready to move past outlines.”

Kennedy, who is still in his first term, was blunt: “It’s dead. It’s dead as a doornail. We’re not going to get it done. We need to go do tax reform and then come back to healthcare.”

Republicans says they’ll do just that, come back to the proposal next year, when they can again try to use legislative process that requires a bare majority and blocks a filibuster, which needs 60 votes to proceed. “We look forward to Reconciliation 2019,” said former Sen. Rick Santorum, an adviser to Graham and Cassidy’s bid. Using that reconciliation process, Republicans would only need to round up 50 votes and Vice President Mike Pence as the tie-breaker.

“I think the votes are there to pass it but they want to do it through regular order,” said Santorum, who sat in on the lunch session with Republican leaders and the Vice President.

As for suggestions that both parties could come together to find a compromise, Santorum scoffed. “There’s no bipartisan support for repealing Obamacare. Let’s just be honest. They feel confident they can get to 50.”

Lawmakers were trying to lay the problems at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, at the White House. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who on Monday announced that she would not vote in favor of the Graham-Cassidy proposal said she hoped leaders would nudge the party toward a bipartisan solution, like one being pursued by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.

“It seems to me that it would be helpful if the Vice President would outline his support for resuming the hearing in the HELP committee and the negotiations that were making such good progress with Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray,” she said.

Negotiations on that solutions would stabilize the insurance marketplace in the Committee on Health, Education Labor and Pensions were put on hold when support for the Graham-Cassidy legislation began to grow. Now that the Senate has closed that door, some in the upper chamber would be eager to start those back up.

Murray said Tuesday she is ready to return to bipartisan talks. “Republican leaders pulled the rug from under us,” she said. “Now, two weeks have been wasted on partisanship … when we could have been working to wrap up this bipartisan deal.”

Democrats cautioned that Obamacare survived the week. “We hope Republicans don’t come back to this bill. It will meet with the same fate,” Sen. Chuck Schumer said, the top Democrat in the Senate.

But Democrats also recognized Republicans were not walking away from the goal of killing Obamacare.

“There isn’t a Democrat here who doesn’t know there are improvements that we need to make,” said Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire. “But as long as there is this threat out there of another Trumpcare attempt, it’s going to be harder for us to do that.”

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com