Washington (AFP) – Mitch McConnell may be Washington’s master political tactician, but the Senate majority leader’s failure to bring an “Obamacare” repeal bill across the finish line appears as a rare and costly miscalculation.
While Democrats equated the health care overhaul to “rotting fish,” several members of McConnell’s own Republican caucus raised a stink too, refusing to get behind the legislation despite appeals by Donald Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Nine Republicans, including conservatives and moderates, openly opposed the measure that McConnell wanted to ram through the 100-member chamber before the July 4 holiday recess. With internal dissent swelling, he postponed a vote on one of Trump’s top goals.
McConnell had drafted the plan in secret with a coterie of aides, leaving out a number of key senators who later expressed concern that the bill could leave millions uninsured.
The Republican leader now returns to the drawing board to rewrite a bill he hopes can bring enough skeptical Republicans to say yes.
McConnell, 75, spent years marshalling his footsoldiers with tenacity and skill to block or delay several of Barack Obama’s legislative priorities.
In 2010 he famously told a reporter that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
After Trump and his Republicans campaigned effectively on a pledge to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, McConnell came under tremendous pressure to follow through, even if it meant a struggle to please various factions in his party.
“McConnell is boxed in,” said political science associate professor Stephen Voss of the University of Kentucky.
“A lot of Republicans campaigned on rolling back Obamacare. He’s got a president who did the same,” Voss told AFP.
“What’s he going to do, say ‘we changed our mind, we’re not going to bother?’ He has to try.”
– ‘McConnell’s nightmare’ –
But that effort appears to have fallen flat, amid less-than-passionate support from the president, other than recent declarations that Obamacare is “dead” and that the overhaul will be “fantastic” for Americans.
When Trump pointed to the Obamacare repeal bill that passed the House of Representatives in May and branded it “mean,” McConnell came under pressure to negotiate a less austere measure.
With public sentiment turning against the Republican bill, McConnell calculated it was best to cut discussion time to a minimum before lawmakers cast their votes.
It was a sharp break with Senate norms to unveil such massive and complex legislation with no hearings and only limited debate, but McConnell figured it was his only shot at getting the bill through.
“This was Mitch McConnell’s nightmare,” Senate Democrat Chris Murphy told MSNBC. “It’s like a rotting fish — the longer that it’s out there, the more it’s going to stink.”
McConnell has run roughshod over legislative norms before now, and top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer warned his rival may reach into his political playbook and “cut backroom deals” with Republicans on the fence.
“I don’t count Senator McConnell out,” Schumer said, according to Fox News, echoing the sentiments of several Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Despite his reputation as a strong-arm tactician, McConnell has also shown a knack for negotiating in a crisis, as he did in 2012 when he quietly huddled with his old Senate pal, then-vice president Joe Biden, and struck a last-minute deal on budget and spending legislation.
After Senate Republicans met with Trump Tuesday to discuss the path forward, McConnell floated the suggestion that a health care negotiation with Democrats might be in order.
“Either Republicans will agree and change the status quo, or (insurance) markets will continue to collapse and we’ll have to sit down with Senator Schumer,” McConnell said.
Professor Voss said McConnell’s threat might have been a ploy to get Republicans lined up behind him.
“Or maybe it’s a statement of what really might be necessary,” Voss said.