In a dizzying turn of events, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell managed to push through a motion to proceed with a debate on healthcare on Tuesday afternoon, as 51 Republicans—including Vice President Mike Pence, who cast the tie-breaking vote—voted in favor of a bill that doesn’t yet exist after halting the battle to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act earlier this month.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski were the only votes against the motion. All Democratic senators voted “no,” so just three GOP defectors would have been enough to sink the debate yet again—maybe for good.
But after previously expressing reservations or saying outright that they would not support various earlier versions of the bill, nearly all of the Republican hold-outs came around: West Virginia Sen. Shelly Capito, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman.
Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, who flew back to Washington for the vote less than a week after being diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, cast the penultimate “aye” vote after entering the chamber to applause from his colleagues, with Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson casting the final vote in favor of proceeding.
On a C-SPAN broadcast of the vote, scores of protesters chanting “shame!” and “kill the bill, don’t kill us” could be heard breaking into the otherwise calm Senate chambers.
If you’re confused by what’s going on here, it’s for good reason: Republican senators, with just two exceptions, voted to press ahead with no final legislative text, not a single public hearing, and no final score from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office in hand. President Trump optimistically told the Wall Street Journal that he views the measure just as “a motion to talk. Basically it’s a motion to talk. But once you get that motion, it’s in pretty good shape.”
In the lead-up to the vote, your elected GOP representatives told reporters they weren’t even sure what bill they were opening debate on: the Senate’s Better Care Reconciliation Act, the so-called repeal-and-replace option in the works for months that deals extensive cuts to Medicaid, or the 2015 Obamacare Repeal Reconciliation Act, which President Obama vetoed.
What comes next is unclear. The Republicans still have to pass an actual bill through the Senate, then get it through the House. The war is not over.