WASHINGTON, DC — Senate Republicans voted to proceed on plans to repeal Obamacare, even after it was not immediately clear what healthcare legislation will ultimately pass.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) returned to Capitol Hill after announcing last week that that he is suffering from brain cancer. He and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) cast the final Republican votes to proceed, leaving it to Vice President Mike Pence to cast the tie-breaking vote.
No Democrats or independents voted for the motion to proceed.
The action leaves Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump a step closer to achieving their campaign promise of repealing Obamacare, the six-year-old law to provide universal health coverage.
Before the vote was taken, protesters in the Senate gallery chanted “Kill the bill” and “Shame!”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) were the sole Republicans voting no.
Critics decried the speed with which McConnell sought to open up debate on legislative proposals in which there have been no hearings and no extensive public deliberation. In trying to strike a deal, McConnell has met with individual senators to try to strike bargains.
Even as he voted for the motion to proceed, McCain said that he “will not vote for this bill as it is today.”
He called it a “shell of a bill,” and urged the Senate to return to the days of bipartisanship. He criticized the process of bringing the bill to the floor, and even expressed doubt that Republicans would be able to pass new healthcare legislation without support from Democrats.
He said that the GOP was trying to craft legislation “without paying a terrible political price.
“We haven’t found it yet — and I am not sure we will,” said McCain, adding that what has happened is that the Affordable Care Act has become more popular as the GOP tries to devise ways to repeal it.
McConnell, appearing before dozens of reporters packed into a Senate hallway after the closely watched vote, said, “We’re not out here to spike the football.” He said that the process will now turn to lawmakers offering amendments.
Democratic senators appeared on the steps of the Capitol afterward before several hundred healthcare activists.
“This is a three alarm fire. We need everybody out there calling their senators,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.),
Several of the senators picked up on McCain’s criticism of the legislation as a “shell.”
“In a way this was funny today because they didn’t know what they were voting for,” said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).
Trump said that the motion to move forward was “a giant step to end the Obamacare nightmare.”
“As this vote shows, inaction is not an option, and now the legislative process can move forward as intended to produce a bill that lowers costs and increases options for all Americans,” he said. “The Senate must now pass a bill and get it to my desk so we can finally end the Obamacare disaster once and for all.”
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of the Senate Republican leadership, told reporters afterward that the vote today was a “first step.”
“All we know is we have an open amendment process, and a number of our members have ideas about what they would like the final result to look like, but if we can get something by the end of this week through the Senate, it will at least position us so we can conference with the House,” he said.
“It depends a lot on what happens over the course of the next several days,” he said. “At the end of it, presumably we will have something that can pass the Senate.”
The highlight of the vote was the return of McCain, who flew in for the vote. He used part of his speech to call on senators to “return to regular order.”
“Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on radio and television and the Internet,” McCain said. “To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.
“We have been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle,” he said, adding that “we are getting nothing done, my friends, we are getting nothing done.”