Senate GOP achieves first step on Obamacare repeal

Bernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and other senators talk with demonstrators Tuesday after a motion to debate Obamacare repeal passed. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

WASHINGTON — In a dramatic vote Tuesday afternoon punctuated by the shouts of protesters from Vermont and elsewhere, the Senate took a step toward repealing the signature health care law of the Obama era.

With a vote of 51 in favor and 50 against, the Senate opened debate on a House bill that would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Two Republicans broke ranks and voted with the Democrats and independents — including both Vermont senators — against the motion. Vice President Mike Pence broke the tie.

Whether there would be sufficient support in the Republican caucus to pass the motion to proceed was in question even as the vote began. The passage of the motion began 20 hours of debate, which can be spread across several days, on the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., previously postponed action on Obamacare repeal several times as Republicans splintered in their support for various proposals.

The vote count was made more uncertain with the announcement last week that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has a serious form of brain cancer. Despite the recent diagnosis, McCain returned to Washington this week for the vote on Obamacare repeal.

Still, the fate of the health care bill remains uncertain. Though Republicans secured enough votes to open debate, every legislative proposal that has been floated so far has lost key levels of support within the caucus.

The bill that passed the House earlier this year likely does not have the votes to pass the Senate, but senators are in the process of offering various proposals to amend the legislation. There are also reports that McConnell is considering a new pared-down “skinny repeal” proposal designed to get enough Republicans on board to pass the bill.

Vermont’s senior senator, Democrat Patrick Leahy, said that even now, as debate begins, the Republican leadership’s vision for legislation isn’t clear.

Senate Democrats rally on the Capitol steps Tuesday after the motion passed. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
Leahy criticized the Republicans for putting together proposals behind closed doors, rather than in public committee hearings. He said he would like to see more bipartisanship.

“Nobody knows what a final bill is going to look like, or anything close to it,” Leahy said. “I wish I could tell you what it would be, but (Republicans) don’t know.”

The vote Tuesday began midafternoon, after weekly caucus luncheons.

McConnell walked determinedly past throngs of reporters, forgoing a customary press briefing, to go straight to the Senate floor.

“The American people elected a House with a vision, with a better way on health care, and then they elected a Senate and then they elected a president,” McConnell said on the floor. “Now, having been given the responsibility to govern, we have a duty to act.”

As the motion was made, protesters began to chant: “Kill the bill, kill the bill.” They continued to yell out as security removed them from the gallery.

Half a dozen Vermonters were among the demonstrators, including state Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington.

Even after the demonstrators were outside the chamber, their chanting echoed through the Senate as the clerk called the names of each member to cast their votes.

The only two Republicans to vote against taking up the bill were Sens. Susan Collins, of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska. One more Republican dissenter would have defeated the motion.

As the clerk read out names, Democrats and independents initially sat silently. After all the Republican votes were tallied, the opponents cast their “no” votes one by one. Leahy said they did so because they wanted to make the contrast in votes “very clear.”

“We wanted the American public to see who was on their side,” Leahy said later in the day.

Several tense minutes passed as McCain and one other remaining Republican had not yet voted. About 100 reporters crowded into the press gallery to wait. Senate aides lined the chamber walls, looking on, as senators chatted with each other and checked their phones.

McCain, a wound above his left eye, entered the chamber to a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle. He and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., cast their votes in favor — paving the way for the motion’s success.

After the voting, McCain took the podium and delivered a passionate speech that raised applause from both Republicans and Democrats.

“Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio, television and internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood,” he said. “Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order.”

While Republican leaders held a press briefing after the vote inside, a gaggle of lawmakers who opposed the motion, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., went outside to meet protesters on the lawn.

Kiah Morris
Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington, was among the protesters in Washington. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger
The crowded greeted them with robust cheers. One man shouted out his support for universal Medicare, a proposal Sanders has floated.

Vermont’s delegation voiced strong opposition to the motion to proceed on the Obamacare repeal bill.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Leahy said he felt the vote was “unfortunate for the country” and “unfortunate for what it means about the Senate.”

He charged that “Trumpcare is a tax plan, disguised as a health plan.”

In a statement, Sanders said the motion to proceed is a step toward “passing the most dangerous and destructive piece of legislation in the modern history of our country.”

“If this bill ends up resembling the House bill, 22 million people will lose health insurance, Medicaid will be cut by nearly $800 billion over the next decade, premiums for older Americans will increase, and 2.5 million women will lose health care as a result of defunding Planned Parenthood. Make no mistake about it, thousands of Americans every year will die unnecessarily if this legislation is passed,” Sanders said.

The proposals to repeal the Affordable Care Act have drawn criticism from top Vermont GOP officials as well. Gov. Phil Scott, who has been openly critical of the Senate’s Obamacare repeal bill, said in a statement Tuesday evening that he will work with other governors and Vermont’s congressional delegation on health care.

“I hope that during the ongoing discussion the Senate will consider the feedback numerous states, including Vermont, have given about the need to maintain federal-state partnerships that build on the approaches states have taken to ensure people have access to health care,” Scott said.

The protesters from Vermont, organized by the group Rights and Democracy, drove to Washington, D.C., on Monday and spent the night sleeping on the floor of a church. Members of the group said they wanted to join the protests for many reasons, including the belief that everyone has a right to health care. One participant said she came because this is a “huge moment for the country.”

Three Vermonters were arrested as part of the protest, according to Morris, who was not arrested. Capitol Police said 95 protesters in all were arrested Tuesday afternoon.

Sitting in the sunshine a few blocks from the capitol Tuesday morning before the vote, Morris said the proposed health care policy changes would have a major impact in Vermont, where federal funding is a key factor in programs that serve vulnerable populations.

Morris also criticized the way the proposals were being brought forward.

“It’s being played like an insidious chess game with people’s lives as the pawns, and that just disgusts me,” she said.

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  • paulaschramm

    Heartfelt thanks to Rep. Kiah Morris and other Vermonters who went down to protest the Senate Republican’s outrageous actions. Watching those Senators try to push through any legislation at all for political gain, no matter how many Americans it will deprive of health care was sickening ! The only uplifting moment was when the shouts of protest, “Kill the bill ! ” rang out in the Senate chambers.

  • Dennis Works

    What a waste of time! Any bill to repeal the ACA (aka ObamaCare), without an accompanying bill to replace it with something that provides options for good coverage at reasonable rates, is doomed to failure. The Republicans know that, the Democrats know that, and John McCain, said as much in his speech yesterday on the Senate floor. So tell me… why go through all of this posturing when EVERYBODY knows nothing is going to come of this? Republicans have complained and cried for 7+ years about the ACA, but have never put forward a proposal that had any chance of passing. So why replace the ACA? Why reinvent the wheel? Why not FIX what is wrong with it? Democrats included Republicans in the creation of the ACA (when Republicans were willing to join in), so why can’t Republicans include Democrats and come up with a bill that improves the ACA?

    • Paul Richards

      “Any bill to repeal the ACA (aka ObamaCare), without an accompanying bill to replace it with something that provides options for good coverage at reasonable rates, is doomed to failure. ” This sounds a lot like the description of obamacare except we had the liar-in-chief telling everyone it would CUT costs, we could KEEP our plans and KEEP our doctors. Indeed; “doomed to failure.”

      • Dennis Works

        Democrats managed to get health care reform passed, even with its faults. What have the Republicans accomplished? Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Everybody knows the ACA is flawed. In many ways you could say it is far from perfect. My belief is the ACA is flawed because the Obama administration, with good intentions, brought in the private health insurers to help design and implement it, intending to keep them in the mix. Those companies did exactly as I expected – they protected their own corporate butts & profits at the expense of the American people. To get TRUE health care reform we need a plan that removes private interest & profit from the insurance picture – streamlined, single-payer, and not-for-profit. That can only be done by the federal government – and they do it quite successfully already with something called Medicare. If you are willing to read about a proposal that would accomplish all of those things, I suggest you go to the website ‘Physicians for a National Health Program’ at http://www.pnhp.org.

    • Victor Stagnetti

      “So why replace the ACA? Why reinvent the wheel? Why not FIX what is wrong with it?”

      Because that would take a degree of rational thought and empathy that Republican legislators, and many individuals in their base, do not seem capable of.

      • Edward Letourneau

        For 7 years the liberals could have offered corrections, and they have done nothing. It was and is 100% their plan.

        • David Bell

          For the last 7 years liberals have offered corrections; right wingers have responded that the one and only goal they have is to sabotage this plan to punish the nation for voting for Obama.

          Not only did right wingers fail to offer an alternative, they have now offered a plan that steals healthcare from millions, raises premiums and reduces quality of coverage.

          Making America Great again?

  • Edward Letourneau

    Actually if people took the time to study the information, they would find out that 90% of the people who would lose coverage, would do so because individual mandate to have and pay for insurance would also be repealed, and they would choose not to have it. — But hey the liberals have to whine, instead of telling the truth.

    • Tom Haley

      So, by that logic, I “choose” not to drive a fancy sports car, and my ability to pay for it has nothing to do with it? Healthcare costs are out of control, and they will only get worse if we don’t do the only reasonable thing: expand Medicare to cover ALL Americans and take the for-profit insurance companies out of the equation.

      • Edward Letourneau

        Non sequitur. The plan was to give people a choice on paying and having insurance or not.

  • JohnGreenberg

    “They have had control of this regulated industry for decades …” Please explain this statement. What control has the federal government had over what industry?

    • Paul Richards

      The topic here is the healthcare industry and the government’s involvement in that. That’s the industry I’m referring to. My apologies if that was not obvious. Here is a brief explanation of some of the controls the state and federal governments have had on this industry; http://www.policestateusa.com/2013/health-care-100-years-creeping-government-control/
      The bottom line is that the feds have allowed and encouraged this out of control monopoly. No other industry is allowed or encouraged to do this; why? What does the government have to gain by promoting this? They get the power and we get the loss of freedom.

  • Dennis Works

    “Why should a 65 year old male be forced to pay for maternity coverage?” In general, he shouldn’t. But guess what? That’s how group-style health insurance has always worked – like it or not. The insurance companies put out packages of plans that often include coverage that some in that group may never need, or want. They do that to meet the needs of the many and the few in their plans – spreading the costs across the entire group. Individual plans may not do that, but they have disadvantages as well, such as “gender rating”, denying people coverage for pre-existing conditions, dropping people from coverage if they got a serious illness, etc. The Republican “plan” is to go back in time and continue doing things the way they have been done for decades, with hugely profitable private corporations making life-and-death decisions based on the bottom line, instead of the need. The results have been ever-increasing costs and poorer and poorer care, while the insurance companies reap huge profits. THAT is why we need health care reform, and THAT is why I believe we need a single-payer national health insurance program. Please do me the favor of extending me the courtesy of checking out the ‘Physicians for a National Health Program’ at http://www.pnhp.org that I mentioned earlier.

    P.S. “It’s all part of their grand plan???” Seriously?

  • Tom Haley

    I couldn’t be more proud of my fellow Vermonters!

  • Edward Letourneau

    No its not wrong. Most of the people who would lose insurance would do so by choice. The liberals also objected to a work requirements for able-bodied people on medicaid.

    • David Bell

      Yes, it is false, most people who would lose insurance would have their plans stolen to pay for a big, fat tax cut to the rich.

      But who cares, most of those people are poor and therefore deserve to suffer, right?

  • Paul Richards
    • JohnGreenberg

      Your link addresses only Obamacare. Your statement to which I responded said: “They have had control of this regulated industry for decades.”

      Obamacare has existed for a few years, not decades.

      Try again.

  • Dennis Works

    Due to VTDigger commenting limitations of 1,000 characters it’s difficult to make thorough comments, including everything I would like to say – especially for someone like me, who tends to be very “wordy”. LOL. I’ve already been warned for making too long of comments (breaking them into two separate comments with a “continued”). I don’t blame VTDigger – after all their editors have to read all of the comments before allowing them to be published. It is what it is and I appreciate the civil forum they operate. And, if they provided a 1,500 character or even 2,500 character limit I’d probably exceed those limits at times as well! hehehe.

    • JohnGreenberg

      I wasn’t trying to be critical. I just wanted to push the issue further while giving you credit for your comment.

      Thank you for your comment and to VT Digger for providing the forum.