Obamacare Repeal Still Alive as Senate Opens Debate

Senate Republicans on Tuesday breathed new life into their anti-Obamacare efforts, as the chamber voted to begin debate on a repeal of the landmark law—although the chances of passing new legislation remain slim in the divided chamber.

The Senate split 50-50 in its vote to begin debate, but Vice President Mike Pence broke the tie and allowed the chamber to move forward. Two Republicans defected from their party, senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. All 48 Democrats voted against beginning the debate.

Adding to the drama was the return of Senator John McCain, fresh from surgery to remove a blood clot over his eye, and bearing the scars. Last week, McCain’s office announced that he is battling a brain tumor. Republicans had hoped McCain would make it back from Phoenix, and the Vietnam War hero was greeted with bipartisan applause when he entered the chamber. McCain took the floor to call for a return to regular order in the Senate, rather than the more chaotic schedule that’s dominated of late. “We’re getting nothing done,” McCain thundered.

Democrats left the chamber quickly to speak on the steps of the Senate, where they could denounce the idea of repealing the Affordable Care Act.

The debate is a rare event in the Senate: Consideration of a major piece of legislation with no single piece of legislation being considered. Instead, the Senate will consider a slew of bills and amendments. Democrats denounced this type of legislating on the fly, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was at ease with the controlled chaos at hand. “Let the voting take us where it will,” he said.

Among the outcomes that could emerge: Nothing will be passed; Obamacare will be repealed without any replacement; or there could be what’s been called a “skinny repeal,” which would leave the Affordable Care Act intact but strip the individual and employer mandates, as well as the 2010 law’s taxes on certain medical devices.  

The Senate has allotted 20 hours to debate this latest attempt at repealing Obamacare. While McConnell was able to keep his conference together on this important procedural vote, there’s no guarantee he can prevent more defections when it comes to actual proposals. But at the very least, the Kentuckian avoided another embarrassing defeat—for now.