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Republicans pull the plug on health care repeal bill

The latest effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act has, once again, fallen off the tracks. The question now is what GOP officials are prepared to do about it.

After Republican repeal crusaders suffered a brutal day yesterday, the question was less about whether the latest GOP health care bill would fail, and more about how it would fail. This afternoon, the answer became clear.

Short on votes and time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is moving on from health care for now.Republican senators decided during their weekly conference lunch to not take a vote on a measure that was sure to go down in defeat with three senators explicitly against it and others wavering.

The announcement comes a day after Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) suggested the GOP leadership might hold the vote, even if failure is a foregone conclusion. "There are a lot of people who want to vote yes and be recorded as voting yes," Cornyn said. "I think there is some advantage to showing you're trying and doing the best you can." (The Texas Republican's track record for accuracy in this fight has been less than impressive.)

While Democrats are clearly delighted by the demise of Graham-Cassidy, as we discussed this morning, they were quietly hoping the bill wouldn't be pulled from the floor: the more Senate Republicans tied themselves to this woefully unpopular bill, the better it would be for their opponents. If, on the other hand, a sizable number of GOP senators broke ranks, Dems would boast about the bipartisan opposition to the repeal measure.

Republican leaders had reason to fear looking weak by pulling the plug on the endeavor, but they had more to fear by hosting another failed health care vote.

Regardless, the bottom line remains the same: the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act has, once again, fallen off the tracks. The question now is what GOP officials are prepared to do about it.

In the short term, Republicans are moving on to tax policy -- the party's proposal is poised to be released this week -- and health care advocates will worry less about Congress and worry more about Donald Trump's attempts to sabotage the existing system.

It's also likely we'll see a renewed effort to reach a bipartisan health care deal -- McConnell helped spike bipartisan talks last week -- building on the recent progress from Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Looking ahead, however, the picture gets murkier. So long as Republicans maintain any control over the levers of federal power, "Obamacare" will carry a target on its back. This week's deadline in the Senate is real, but there are steps Congress can take in the future, and GOP leaders are no doubt already weighing their options. Vox had a good piece on the complex procedural choices available.

But at least for now, health care advocates have reason to smile. A rather serious threat to the health care system was gaining momentum, only to come to an abrupt halt.