On Monday morning I texted a conservative Republican senator for the latest on the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. "If the bill moves any further left, Obamacare will be the conservative alternative!" he wrote back.
The repeal and replace effort did not produce a bill that could pass, but it did produce plenty of dark humor among Republicans.
The end — well, this is not actually the end, but the end of the current effort — came after the GOP experienced a health crisis of its own, as Sen. John McCain underwent surgery to remove a blood clot in or near the brain and announced he would not be able to return to Washington for at least a week. The McCain announcement threw the GOP into greater disarray than before. Nobody knew what was going on.
"I don't think anyone knows state of play till we learn more about McCain," the conservative Republican texted in the same exchange Monday.
As it turned out, McCain's absence showed that the Senate Obamacare effort was like a game of Jenga: Remove just one stick and the whole thing falls apart.
Collapse came at precisely 8:30 p.m. Monday night, when GOP Sen. Mike Lee tweeted that he and colleague Sen. Jerry Moran "will not support the MTP (motion to proceed) to this version" of the Republican Obamacare bill. On top of the announced opposition of Sens. Rand Paul and Susan Collins, that meant there was no way the bill could get to the floor of the Senate, much less go through the amendment process and ultimately pass.
A little more than two hours later, at 10:48 p.m., Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted a statement. "Regretfully, it is now apparent that the effort to appeal and immediately replace the failure of Obamacare will not be successful," he wrote. "So, in the coming days, the Senate will vote to take up the House bill with the first amendment in order being what a majority of the Senate has already supported in 2015 and that was vetoed by then-President Obama: a repeal of Obamacare with a two-year delay to provide for a stable transition period to a patient-centered health care system that gives Americans access to quality, affordable care."
That immediately led to the conclusion, at least among journalists who were up late and working, that the Senate would actually vote on the Obamacare repeal bill that it passed, by a vote of 52-47 on Dec. 3, 2015. For Republicans at that time, it was a free vote, a "symbolic" vote against Obamacare, since they knew former President Barack Obama would veto it. But now, with a president who will sign a repeal bill, would they do it again?
Collins, who opposes the current bill, is the only Republican in the Senate who voted against repeal back in 2015. But look at the GOP senators who voted in favor of repeal: Dean Heller, the Nevada senator who's been very publicly reluctant to support the current effort. Shelley Moore Capito, Lisa Murkowski, Rob Portman, and more. Would they all vote the same way again with a Republican in the White House and a majority of voters opposed to the bill?
The answer is that it is exceedingly unlikely they will have to cast that vote. Look carefully at what McConnell said. First, the Senate will "vote to take up the House bill." And then, after it votes to take up the House bill, the first amendment to be considered and voted on will be that December 2015 Obamacare bill. But remember, McConnell's statement came after it became clear that Republicans would not vote to take up the bill in the first place. So if they are true to their words and vote against sending the bill to the Senate floor, then they will never have to vote on any amendments to it — meaning they won't have to re-affirm their December 2015 support for repealing Obamacare.
The searing test of Republican hypocrisy — what radio host Hugh Hewitt called #TheHotSeatForHypocrites — won't happen.
That doesn't mean Obamacare repeal is dead forever. Just as it happened after initial failure in the House, Republicans will realize they have to do something after agitating for repeal for seven-plus years.
But that sense of obligation aside, it does show very clearly that many Republicans just do not want to repeal Obamacare. They said they wanted to do it, they made it their top policy priority, they campaigned on it — and now, with the power in their hands, they don't want to do it. The same is true in the House. (See "Why can't House repeal Obamacare? Because a lot of Republicans don't want to.")
After McConnell admitted defeat, McCain, the man whose health crisis started the final Jenga collapse, released a statement saying lawmakers should start over. "The Congress must now return to regular order, hold hearings, receive input from members of both parties, and heed the recommendations of our nation's governors so that we can produce a bill that finally provides Americans with access to quality and affordable health care."
Maybe the GOP will follow that course, or maybe not. But with Obamacare in deep trouble in McCain's Arizona and elsewhere, it is clear that Republicans will eventually have to do something about it — whether they want to or not.