In this Oct. 20, 2015 photo Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., talks to reporters near the subway on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP

Has John McCain thrown a lifeline to the GOP health care crusade?

The Republican health care crusade appeared to have effectively run its course. GOP lawmakers gave it their best shot, but the combination of intra-party divisions, widespread public revulsion, and a looming deadline led many health care advocates to breathe a sigh of relief.

That is, until yesterday afternoon. The Washington Post reported:

Six weeks after he stopped his party from repealing much of the Affordable Care Act, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he could support a compromise that had been shelved months earlier — one that the president has hinted he would sign.

On Wednesday, McCain told the Hill that he backed a proposal from Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) that would end the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and insurance subsidies, and instead dole out money to states for whatever health insurance programs they favored. McCain, Graham’s closest friend in the Senate, said that he would obviously support Graham’s bill.

McCain has spoken with great passion of late about the need for the Senate to return to legislating through “regular order” – having bills go through committee, be subject to extensive debate and amendments, etc. – insisting this is necessary for the health and stability of the republic. Yesterday, however, the Arizona Republican suggested he might be willing to ignore his principles to help pass his friend’s far-right plan.

“If it’s not through regular order, then it’s a mistake,” McCain said. “But it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t vote for it.”

And that, naturally, set off a panic among those who rely on the American health care system. If McCain is prepared to vote for a regressive plan that would take coverage from millions, it raised the prospect of Senate Republican leaders simply bringing the far-right Graham-Cassidy-Heller plan to the floor and passing it with 50 votes.

For health care advocates, McCain’s off-hand comment became an immediate here-we-go-again moment.

Which made it all the more important when the senator clarified his position late in the day.

“While I support the concept of the Graham-Cassidy proposal, I want to see the final legislation and understand its impact on the state of Arizona before taking a position,” McCain said in a written statement. “As I have said all along, any effort to replace Obamacare must be done through the regular order of committee hearings, open debate and amendments from both sides of the aisle.”

To unpack this a bit, Lindsey Graham’s far-right plan doesn’t exist in legislative form just yet, and it hasn’t been subjected to Congressional Budget Office scrutiny. McCain, at least initially, said he’s prepared to vote for a plan he’s never seen.

The walk-back statement, therefore, eases the panic. McCain’s new position is that he’d like to see the bill, and believes it “must” go through regular order – which would mean going through a lengthy committee process. One of McCain’s top advisers echoed the position soon after.

With only about three weeks remaining before the Republicans’ deadline to pass a health care bill, this suggests the odds of GOP success are once again long.

This isn’t to say it’s impossible – a lot can happen in three weeks – but for a bill that doesn’t yet exist, trying to rush through the Graham-Cassidy-Heller plan would be extraordinarily difficult, and it’s not even clear if GOP leaders intend to try.

Postscript: For background on why this plan would be such a disaster, here’s a piece from early August.

Health Care, John McCain and Lindsey Graham

Has John McCain thrown a lifeline to the GOP health care crusade?