Last night, in the United States Senate, a great circuit was blown in the Republican Party. After seven years of unyielding and prescient opposition to Obamacare, the GOP realized with a start that the health law will never be rolled back. Repeal is dead, after frantic attempts to resuscitate it stretched late into the night.
It was John McCain (R-AZ) who sounded the death knell, renewing his moniker of “Maverick,” which is Latin for “sides with Democrats.” His unexpected vote against the so-called “skinny repeal” joined those of Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), which together were enough to sideline Mike Pence and destroy the legislation. For Republican leadership, this was an excruciating twist. They’d spent months wrangling with sometimes-intransigent conservatives who groused that the bill didn’t dig deep enough, only to be overcome by a mutiny of centrists that parted to reveal their own 2008 presidential nominee.
Other legislatures are not so enamored with comity as our Upper Chamber. After former British Labour leader Ed Miliband had defected to oppose intervening in Syria, anonymous voices in the government raged that he was a “f–king c–t” and a “copper-bottomed shit.” Alas, this is the U.S. Senate, and the most Mitch McConnell (R-KY) mustered was: “This is clearly a disappointing moment.” He faulted Democrats for skinny repeal’s defeat, but he surely knows this was a made-in-the-GOP debacle. The Republican Party, representing states from Maine to Texas and pockmarked by ideological contradictions, proved itself too variegated—too akin to a governing coalition rather than a political party—to agree even on Obamacare repeal.
So, the recriminations have begun. Congressman Mo Brooks (R-AL) has gone so far as to term McConnell a “swamp creature” and called on him to step down. Yet—it pains me to say this—you can’t really pin the blame on the Senate majority leader here. In fact, it’s a credit to his parliamentary acumen that rollback efforts made it even this far. The real culprits are McCain, Murkowski and Collins, and the magnitude of what they did last night shouldn’t be understated.
The so-called “skinny repeal” was never going to land on the president’s desk. It was a springboard, a way to vault Republican health care efforts out of the Senate and into a conference committee with the House, where something new could be hammered out. This was only to be a nudge toward the next procedural waypoint, not the final product, as Paul Ryan (R-WI) reinforced last night by pledging that the House would send “skinny repeal” to conference rather than pass it outright. There, Republicans could turn the page on this ugly psychodrama and craft something better—hopefully, maybe. That glimmer of possibility is why even on-record skeptics of the GOP health bills like me supported skinny repeal.
The centrists couldn’t even sip from that lukewarm cup. Friday morning’s choice was between keeping repeal efforts alive and pulling the plug in favor of Obamacare, and they opted for the latter. They might have waited to see what came out the of the conference committee, they might have given their caucus one final chance; they chose instead the status quo, with its skyrocketing premiums and exploding exchanges. They own all of that now. Would that I could have voted for Alaska Republican Joe Miller in 2010 to prevent Murkowski from returning for another term. Those of us who cut our teeth opposing Obamacare are reaching for the Tylenol this morning.
It may be that whatever bill the conference committee ultimately disgorged would have failed, too, and that gets to a reality we conservatives must accept. Those circumspect centrists—Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), in particular, comes to mind—are to an extent reflective of the GOP’s more marginal voters, which, having steamed over Obamacare for years, have pinched themselves and realized they aren’t ready to support killing it either. They don’t want further action on health care because they don’t trust either party to get it right. They’re certainly in no mood to slash Medicaid, not with epicenters of poverty like Appalachia still dizzy from the recession. We have been through a wild, brutal, uncertain decade in this America of ours, and at least on health care, there is no appetite for further disruption.
So, RIP Obamacare repeal. Winston Churchill couldn’t roll back a government health entitlement and neither could we. This has been a dark week for American conservatism, and the banana-peel entrance of The Mooch suggests the spiral into the black will only continue.