McConnell Avoided Making a Promise He Couldn’t Keep

McCain’s health care announcement showed value of majority leader’s caution

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell intends to vote on a health care measure this week, but he might lack the votes for passage. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell intends to vote on a health care measure this week, but he might lack the votes for passage. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted September 25, 2017 at 5:04am

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell never quite guaranteed a floor vote on the latest Republican effort to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law as the clock ticked toward an end-of-September deadline.

The Kentucky Republican’s office was measured last week when asked about the prospects for floor action, with the majority leader saying through multiple spokespersons that it was “the Leader’s intention to consider” the legislation drafted by Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

It’s a nuance that, with any other congressional leader, might not matter. But for all of McConnell’s recent efforts to push the Graham-Cassidy plan as a last-ditch fallback, he never made a promise on something he couldn’t deliver.

In announcing he would oppose the legislation if it should come to a vote, McCain stood behind his desire for the Senate to return to its bipartisan traditions, rather than racing to beat an end-of-the-fiscal-year deadline to pass legislation through the budget reconciliation process with a bare majority of Republicans.

“We should not be content to pass health care legislation on a party-line basis, as Democrats did when they rammed Obamacare through Congress in 2009. If we do so, our success could be as short-lived as theirs when the political winds shift, as they regularly do,” the Arizona Republican said in his statement. “The issue is too important, and too many lives are at risk, for us to leave the American people guessing from one election to the next whether and how they will acquire health insurance.”

“A bill of this impact requires a bipartisan approach,” he said.

McCain called for reviving the bipartisan talks led by Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and ranking Democrat Patty Murray of Washington on stabilizing the insurance markets, something Murray quickly seconded.

“I agree with Senator McCain that the right way to get things done in the Senate — especially on an issue as important to families as their health care — is through regular order and working together to find common ground,” she said in a statement Friday. “I’m still at the table ready to keep working, and I remain confident that we can reach a bipartisan agreement as soon as this latest partisan approach by Republican leaders is finally set aside.”

That effort was jettisoned, thanks largely to the emergence of the Republican plan, despite pleas from Murray to keep up the effort. Alexander had said the talks were also complicated by the introduction of a so-called Medicare-for-all proposal by Vermont independent Bernie Sanders with the backing of numerous Senate Democrats.

“Sen. Sanders and other Democrats announcing their single-payer announcement last week and the Graham-Cassidy bill have created a crossfire that made bipartisan consensus more difficult,” Alexander said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Before the McCain announcement, Sanders was booked to appear at a CNN town hall to debate health care policy Monday night alongside Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, with Cassidy and Graham on the other side. Some of the media buildup behind that event faded after the McCain news.

Democrats lauded the Arizona Republican’s decision to again oppose the rollback of the health care law through reconciliation, but the message to activists was to not let up the pressure until the bill actually expires at midnight Saturday.

“This bill is not dead yet. You can relax on October 1,” Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz tweeted. “They never let up, and neither can we.”