Over the weekend, Politico said that Senate Republican leaders were leaving the “door open to delaying” a vote on their health care bill. Yesterday, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) responded to those reports by saying, “I am closing the door. We need to do it this week.”
Cornyn, whose leadership responsibilities focus primarily on counting votes, reiterated this morning that the GOP bill was poised for success on the floor, with a procedural vote on track for tomorrow.
A few hours later, the plan changed.
Senate Republicans Tuesday postponed a planned vote on the GOP bill to replace Obamacare until after the July 4th recess. Senators were told of the delay at a Republican lunch by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to multiple sources.
At least five GOP senators had said they were not prepared to vote in favor of a procedural measure that was slated to take place as early as Tuesday evening. That vote was necessary to begin the process that would have allowed the senate to take a final vote by the end of the week.
There’s no great mystery as to what happened here. When Senate GOP leaders announced last week that they would hold a vote by the end of this week, they assumed they’d have the votes. After yesterday’s report from the Congressional Budget Office, and a wave of pressure from voters, it quickly became clear they weren’t close.
Indeed, the number of Republican opponents of the proposal was growing, not shrinking, leading to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) retreat today.
There’s no sugarcoating the developments: today was an embarrassing setback for GOP leaders – and a comparable success for health care advocates and their allies. As recently as late last week, the conventional wisdom was that everything was on track for passage, and yet, there was the Senate Republican leadership on the Hill today, admitting they had no choice but to slink away, defeated (for now) by their own members.
But to see this as an end point would be a major mistake.
The obvious parallel here is to the House, where GOP leaders pulled their health care bill in March, only to revive it – and pass it – less than two months later. In the Senate, the timeline could be much tighter: McConnell said he’s delaying the process until members return from their July 4th break. That means they’ll be back on the Hill on July 10, and a vote could theoretically follow soon after.
In practice, however, no one, including Republican senators themselves, seems to have any idea how to craft a bill that can garner the support of 50 members. McConnell may believe it’ll be easier to work towards an intra-party consensus away from the spotlight – he’s clearly a fan of shaping policy in secret – but the core differences between the GOP factions won’t be any less severe in the coming weeks and months.
What’s more, the calendar is not the Republicans’ friend. The delay on health care gives both sides time to marshal their forces, but when the Senate returns in two weeks, members will have a very busy to-do list – including a difficult fight over the debt ceiling – ahead of their very lengthy summer break.
The House had the luxury of time after their initial foray failed. For the Senate, the challenge is greater.
Postscript: The challenge for Democrats will be keeping a fighting spirit alive and convincing activists not to grow complacent. With many GOP senators avoiding town-hall events, health care proponents may have to get creative to be heard.