First it was “repeal and replace.” Then it was just “repeal.” Now, the Senate has adopted a clever new strategy: “Vote to proceed on a shell bill and then see what happens.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described the new strategy of voting to proceed on nothing in particular following a GOP senators’ lunch at the White House. After saying that he and the administration were still working the members who were “having some difficulty getting to ‘yes,’” he described “what ‘yes’ is.”
“It’s the motion to proceed,” he said. “So next week will be voting to get on the bill.”
“I have every expectation that we’ll be able to get on the bill,” he said.
But… what bill?
Technically, the Senate would be taking up H.R. 1628, or the House-passed American Health Care Act. But that's not either of the plans they've been considering passing. The plan, as of Tuesday, was to amend the House bill with a repeal-only bill, similar to the one Congress passed in 2015 but which President Obama vetoed. But the votes for repeal-only weren't there.
So now President Trump wants everyone to give repeal-and-replace another look. Several senators said that Trump stressed this in today's White House meeting.
“The President was interested in getting a deal,” Sen. Roger Wicker said. To that end, some senators will meet with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma Wednesday night to continue working out their issues, particularly on Medicaid. (Except Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who has plans. Susan Collins is so done with this!)
But it’s unknown if this is what the Senate intends to vote on. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, like McConnell, told reporters that the vote next week would be on the “motion to proceed.” When a reporter asked what they were proceeding on—repeal-and-replace? Repeal only?—Cornyn said that “remains unresolved.”
“We’re kind of going back and forth,” he said. (No kidding!) “But based on the discussions we’ve had today, there’s more optimism that we could vote on a repeal-and-replace bill.”
Crazy as this is, I can see what McConnell is trying to do. He had too many defectors on the motion to proceed for either the Better Care Reconciliation Act or the 2015 repeal-only bill. His only way to "get on the bill," then, is not to commit to either of them, and to persuade his members to vote to proceed to the unknown.
This has its limitations. Senators don’t like to advance mystery bills, or to open debate on something they have no intention of supporting. West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, for instance, reaffirmed after the meeting that she will still vote “no” on proceeding unless there’s a replacement plan that she supports. And a spokesperson for Utah Sen. Mike Lee tells me that they “would want a plan spelled out publicly” before voting to proceed. Keep in mind, too, that senators don’t love the prospect of an open-amendment “vote-a-rama,” which is what this would be if the vote to proceed passes, since Democrats will file all sorts of poison pill amendments to mess with them and manufacture sound bites for attack ads.
Those are some of the reasons why asking senators to get on a mystery bill is an epic Hail Mary. The main one, though, is just that it’s obviously ridiculous to imagine that after all of this, Republicans will finally, in open debate over an unformed blob, come to an agreement.