The Senate narrowly passed a bill Thursday that would repeal key pieces of the Affordable Care Act and strip federal funding of Planned Parenthood for one year. The bill, which only needed 51 votes to pass because it was being considered using a procedure allowing it to bypass typical Senate procedures which require 60 votes to advance a piece of legislation, passed 52-47.
It's not exactly a secret that when congressional Republicans vote to repeal all or part of the Affordable Care Act -- as they've done dozens upon dozens of times -- it's not because they intend to succeed. On the contrary, they already know these bills are doomed to fail, at least so long as President Obama is in the White House, blocking any GOP effort to take Americans' health benefits away.
And yet, the Senate Republican majority invested months of effort in yet another "Obamacare" repeal measure, culminating in a close vote last night.
The final roll call is online here. Note that two Senate Republicans -- Maine's Susan Collins and Illinois' Mark Kirk -- broke ranks and opposed the repeal bill. No Democrats voted for it.
The first instinct is always to evaluate legislation on the merits, and in this case, the Republican repeal package is simply indefensible. It would increase the ranks of the uninsured by at 22 million people over the next three years, while killing Medicaid expansion, scrapping subsidies to working families, and even defunding Planned Parenthood for reasons GOP lawmakers still haven't explained with any coherence.
But in this case, it's best not to focus too heavily on the policy details because, as Republicans freely admit, this entire legislative endeavor, months in the making, was nothing but political theater -- an elaborate sham.
The first part of the charade has to do with preventing a government shutdown. By orchestrating this drama, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) believed he can send a repeal bill to the White House, watch it get vetoed, and then pursue a "clean" -- or at least, "cleaner" -- spending package next week before current federal funding expires, effectively telling his members, "Well, we gave it our best shot."
The second part of this gambit is giving the party's rabid base a symbolic victory. Republicans have somehow convinced themselves that right-wing activists will be impressed by Congress going through the motions and forcing the president to veto a dumb repeal bill that has no real-world implications whatsoever.
But it's the final part the charade that's the most interesting angle.
This bill was able to pass the Senate thanks to a legislative tactic known as the "budget reconciliation" process, which allows lawmakers to pass budget measures by majority rule -- no filibusters allowed. It's why Democrats weren't able to block last night's vote.
The GOP majority knows the president will veto any repeal measure, but this isn't about now; it's about 2017, when Republicans expect to see complete, far-right control over the House, Senate, and White House. In other words, last night's vote was a dry-run -- a proof-of-concept dress rehearsal -- for when Republicans are really able to start taking families' health care benefits away.
What they don't fully seem to appreciate, however, is that the dry-run itself doesn't make sense: many of the Republicans who went along with the partisan Kabuki did so grudgingly, balking at some key elements of this bill, and making clear they're not thrilled about voting to push 22 million Americans into the ranks of the uninsured.
Or put another way, if President Obama weren't in office right now, and President Republican were, this identical bill very likely would have failed. Some GOP senators reluctantly voted for this because they've been told all along that no one will actually suffer as a result of the ridiculous theatrics.
The result is a high-profile dress rehearsal in which the cast is told in advance, "Don't worry, the script will be totally different soon."
Slate's Jim Newell had a great piece on this the other day -- published ahead of the vote -- that explained, "Republicans are on the cusp of showing that they're procedurally capable of repealing most of the ACA should they unify control of the federal government in next year's election, but they've also revealed that they're far from politically committed.... If Republicans in 2017 are finally able to gut the law, they'll have to make a choice: Suffer the political consequences of taking away health coverage from millions, or suffer the political consequences of breaking a central promise to the Republican base. Neither sounds particularly fun."
In the meantime, it's Democrats who seem pleased to have fodder for some 2016 attack ads. Several vulnerable Senate Republican incumbents -- New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte, Wisconsin's Ron Johnson, Ohio's Rob Portman, Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey, Missouri's Roy Blunt, North Carolina's Richard Burr, et al -- just voted to strip many of their own constituents of their health care benefits, while also going after Planned Parenthood less than a week after the deadly violence in Colorado Springs.
Expect to hear more about this vote next fall.
Disclosure: My wife works for Planned Parenthood, but she played no role in this piece.