Republicans are taking another shot at passing a health care bill in the Senate, and two senators have the power to make or break it. (You can read about the bill and where things stand here.)
Following a GOP policy committee lunch Tuesday, it's clear Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) are the two lawmakers who could finish off — or resurrect — the Obamacare repeal effort.
Two Republicans, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Susan Collins of Maine, already oppose key aspects of the bill and are perceived to be unwinnable by GOP leaders, leaving Murkowski and McCain as the two most prominent undecided lawmakers leadership has to sway to pass the bill.
And they only have 11 days to pull it off before the budget reconciliation vehicle to pass it expires.
Murkowski and the Numbers
Murkowski, who voted against the GOP's last attempt at a health care bill, says she's still looking at the numbers before making a decision on how to vote. She's used that answer consistently during past repeal attempts, and she didn't confirm she would vote against the bill until the vote happened the first time around.
On Tuesday, Murkowski said her goals were the same as last time: getting the best deal possible for her state. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker (I) announced his opposition to the Graham-Cassidy health care bill Tuesday afternoon, which could play a large part in Murkowski's decision. A shortened transcript of a conversation Murkowski had with reporters after the lunch meeting follows:
Question: Can you speak to the pressure you're under right now?
Murkowski: Yeah. It is intense.
Q: How do you deal with that?
Murkowski: I go home to Alaska, and I get grounded again. I listen to people. I breathe clean air. I talk to people and look them directly in the eye, and they look me directly in the eye, and they tell me exactly what they feel.
Q (summarized): Alaskans were happy about your last vote against the Obamacare repeal bill. After such a reception, how do you change that and vote for this bill?
Murkowski: You have to remember that the problem last time was process and substance. Nobody knew what we were looking to and voting on. So I have asked questions about process. I have looked to substance. I'm still looking for data that walks me through how Alaska actually does. My governor has said, “Hey, I like flexibility, but if I get half as much money, flexibility doesn't help me.” In fairness to my governor, and in fairness to Alaskans, the numbers actually matter. So, if it can be shown that Alaska is not going to be disadvantaged and we gain flexibility, we can go back to Alaskans and I can say, 'OK. Let's walk through this together. That's where it could be different'. But I don't have that right now. So those that have asked 'Where are you? Where are you?' it's not that I'm being evasive, it's that I'm trying to be diligent.
McCain and Regular Order
McCain is the other Republican under pressure to flip his vote in order to bring Graham-Cassidy across the finish line. He surprised his colleagues in July when he voted against the skinny repeal package at the last minute, killing its chances.
McCain's primary concern then was the process. He wanted regular order, meaning Republicans would have held hearings, markups, and worked through the bill in an open amendment process. He told reporters on Monday that regular order remained his foremost consideration, and soon after, in a clear attempt to woo McCain, Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee announced they would hold a hearing on Graham-Cassidy next week.
McCain answered the question of whether that small measure would be enough to satisfy his goal of a regular order process for health care Tuesday. A transcript of his exchange with reporters on that subject after lunch follows:
Question: In your mind, is that (the Senate Finance Committee Hearing) regular order? Do you think that's enough?
McCain: You think that that's regular order? I always thought regular order was hearings and debates and amendments and then to the floor with debates, discussion, and amendments. That's what I thought regular order was.
If he's looking for debate, McCain will have to settle for only 90 seconds of it, which is the amount of time remaining for debate on the reconciliation vehicle after time was used during the GOP's failed attempt to pass Obamacare repeal in July.
Republicans on Capitol Hill and the White House have embraced the Graham-Cassidy plan despite the challenges they still face. They will work to win over McCain and Murkowski throughout the coming days, but they might end up in the same spot.
What about this bill would be able to flip those two votes?
If anything, it won't be the bill. “It'll be the circumstances,” one senior Senate Republican aide told Independent Journal Review. “This will be members' last opportunity to repeal Obamacare and fulfill their promise.”