McCain, Murkowski, Collins vote down ‘skinny’ repeal

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. John McCain appeared poised to be the savior of the GOP health bill when he returned to the Capitol earlier this week despite brain cancer. He turned out to be the bill’s executioner. In an astonishing development early Friday, the longtime Arizona senator turned on his party and his president, joining two other GOP senators in voting “no” on Republicans’ final effort to repeal “Obamacare.” His unexpected vote killed the bill, and also dealt what looks like a death blow to the Republican Party’s years of promises to get rid of Barack Obama’s health law. At 80 years old in the twilight of a remarkable career, McCain lived up to his reputation as a maverick. When he walked into the well of the Senate around 1:30 a.m. and gave a thumbs-down to the legislation, Democrats briefly broke into cheers, which Minority Leader Chuck Schumer quickly waved his arm to quiet. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stood stone-faced, his arms crossed. President Donald Trump later tweeted his disapproval, but a president who once mocked McCain’s years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam apparently did not have much sway on the six-term senator when it counted. Just days earlier, on Tuesday, McCain had buoyed GOP health efforts when he returned to the Capitol for the first time after getting diagnosed with a brain tumor, and cast a decisive vote to open debate on the GOP repeal legislation. Yet even then he forecast that his support could not be counted on, as he took the floor to lecture his colleagues, the scars from his surgery etched severely along the left side of his face. “The Obama administration and congressional Democrats shouldn’t have forced through Congress, without any opposition support, a social and economic change as massive as Obamacare. And we shouldn’t do the same with ours,” McCain said then. “Why don’t we try the old way of legislating in the Senate, the way our rules and customs encourage us to act,” he added. “If this process ends in failure, which seems likely, then let’s return to regular order.” The outcome McCain predicted came to pass — he made sure that it did. And now if Republicans want to get anything done on health care, they will have little choice but to return to regular order and turn to Democrats. McCain was not the lone Republican senator in killing the health bill. Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska ignored criticism and even threats from Trump and his administration to cast a “no” vote, as did Susan Collins of Maine, a moderate who has opposed GOP efforts all along. McConnell’s remarks in the immediate aftermath of the vote were a bitter rebuke to all three. “I and many of my colleagues did as we promised and voted to repeal this failed law,” McConnell said on the Senate floor, glaring toward the Republican side of the aisle. “We told our constituents we would vote that way and when the moment came, when the moment came, most of us did.” McCain cast his “no” vote even though he campaigned for re-election last fall on promises to repeal and replace “Obamacare.” He did it despite heavy lobbying in the Senate chamber from Vice President Mike Pence, who was in lengthy and intense conversation with the senator right before the vote, as the president himself pushed for the legislation to pass. And in perhaps the crowning irony, McCain’s vote saved a law that was the signal achievement of his political nemesis, Obama, who defeated him for the presidency in 2008.

Trump tells GOP to keep its promises to replace Obamacare

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on July 19 stepped up the pressure on reluctant Republicans to erase much of Barack Obama’s health care law, tweeting, “They MUST keep their promise to America” and vowing the measure would improve at his White House lunch with senators. In a last-ditch effort to revive the bill, Trump invited all 52 Republicans to the White House, a day after the GOP’s seven-year quest crashed and burned in a humiliating defeat for the president, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the GOP. Trump tweeted ahead of the session, “The Republicans never discuss how good their healthcare bill is, &it will get even better at lunchtime. The Dems scream death as OCare dies!” and “I will be having lunch at the White House today with Republican Senators concerning healthcare. They MUST keep their promise to America!” Trump stayed largely on the sidelines as McConnell struggled unsuccessfully to round up support to make good on the GOP’s years of promises to repeal and replace Obama’s health care law. But with McConnell’s third and final effort — on a repeal-only bill — looking like it, too, had collapsed, Trump urged McConnell to delay a make-or-break vote until early next week. Trump’s lunch echoes a similar move in June after McConnell fell short on his first health care effort, and it yielded no apparent results. Indeed Trump seated himself between two GOP senators — Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — who announced Tuesday they would oppose McConnell’s efforts to move forward with the latest bill. Along with opposition from a third GOP senator, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, that was enough to kill the legislation. McConnell can lose only two votes and still move forward in the closely divided Senate. Still, speaking on the Senate floor July 19, McConnell continued to call on his caucus to support the repeal-only bill, and thanked Trump and other members of the administration for their support. “The Obamacare repeal legislation will ensure a stable two-year transition period, which will allow us to wipe the slate clean and start over with real patient-centered health care reform,” McConnell said. “Now we thankfully have a president in office who will sign it so we should send it to him.” Despite the rhetoric from Trump and McConnell, it looks like after seven years of campaigning on repealing “Obamacare,” Republicans have discovered they can’t deliver. Their own divisions are blocking them. McConnell was ready to hold the showdown vote July 19, to get senators on record on the issue and move on to other priorities like overhauling the tax code. But in a closed-door GOP lunch on July 18, fellow Republican senators urged him to wait, according to Republicans present who demanded anonymity to discuss the private issue. McConnell announced late July 18 that the vote would occur early next week, “at the request of the president and vice president and after consulting with our members.” Yet with Murkowski, Collins and Capito already on record as “no” votes, and others harboring private reservations, it’s not clear what can change over the next several days. On Tuesday, Trump himself had sounded ready to move to other issues. “I think we’re probably in that position where we’ll just let Obamacare fail,” the president said. “We’re not going to own it. I’m not going to own it. I can tell you that the Republicans are not going to own it. We’ll let Obamacare fail and then the Democrats are going to come to us and they’re going to say, ‘How do we fix it?’” Despite the current law’s problems, most health care experts do not believe it is at immediate risk of outright failure, and Democratic cooperation to adjust the law is far from assured. Nor does it appear likely that Republicans can escape owning the problems with the law and the health care system overall, now that they control the House, Senate and White House, partly on the strength of campaigning against the law. McConnell had been hunting for votes to open debate on a revived version of legislation Congress sent to Obama’s desk in 2015 that would have repealed major portions of Obamacare, with a two-year delay built in. Many Republicans support the repeal-only approach, and they questioned how senators who voted for the legislation two years ago could oppose it now. But for others, the implications were too severe now that the bill could actually become law with a Republican president in the White House ready to sign it. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that more than 30 million people would lose insurance over a decade under the legislation. Murkowski told reporters that repealing the Affordable Care Act without the promise of a replacement would cause uncertainty and chaos. She suggested a better approach might be to go back to the committee room and work on a bipartisan basis “in a way that the public feels that we are really working toward their best interests.” Indeed Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of a Senate health panel, subsequently announced he planned hearings on the issue in the next few weeks, a step Senate Republicans have not taken to date.

Nomination of ExxonMobil CEO could be early test for Trump in Congress

WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump is inviting a clash in a narrowly divided Senate by selecting Rex Tillerson for secretary of State despite well-publicized concerns from several GOP senators over his ties to Russia. The likely confirmation fight could be an early test of Trump's sway over Congress, and demonstrate how much appetite there is among Republicans to stand up to their president. For now, three Republican senators have publicly voiced concerns about the Tillerson nomination: Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida. All have cited the ExxonMobil executive's history of making deals in Russia and his close ties with Vladimir Putin, which include opposing sanctions sought by the U.S. and Europe against Russia after it invaded Crimea. However, none of the three has said thus far that he will oppose Tillerson. And only Rubio sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will hold a confirmation hearing in early January to consider the nomination. "While Rex Tillerson is a respected businessman, I have serious concerns about his nomination. The next secretary of state must be someone who views the world with moral clarity, is free of potential conflicts of interest, has a clear sense of America's interests, and will be a forceful advocate for America's foreign policy goals," Rubio said. "I will do my part to ensure he receives a full and fair but also thorough hearing." The committee currently has 10 Republican and 9 Democratic members, meaning Tillerson needs support from every Republican to get a successful committee vote, presuming Democrats all oppose him. Yet even if the panel rejects him, there is precedent for the full Senate to take up his nomination. The Senate will be divided 52-48 next year in favor of the Republicans, meaning Tillerson could lose only two Republicans if all Democrats voted "No." That scenario would produce a 50-50 split and require a tie-breaking vote from Mike Pence, who by then will be the new vice president. It's also possible, though, that Tillerson could garner support from one or more of the moderate Democrats. The last time the Senate rejected a presidential Cabinet pick was in 1989 when it voted down John Tower as George H.W. Bush's defense secretary after he had already been rejected by the Armed Services committee. More frequently, nominees have withdrawn from consideration when opposition built, as happened in 2009 with Tom Daschle, President Barack Obama's first pick for Health and Human Services secretary. It was unclear Tuesday whether the fight over Tillerson would turn into a major brawl in the Senate or just a minor skirmish. One question is how hard Democrats, who've made clear they want to focus on economic issues, will fight. Several issued statements Tuesday angrily denouncing the nomination, but the Democrats' incoming leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, was more measured, pointing to Tillerson's Russia ties and calling for a thorough and lengthy confirmation hearing "given these serious concerns." Tillerson immediately picked up support from the top two Senate Republicans, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. McConnell praised Tillerson's "decades of experience" and concluded: "I look forward to supporting his nomination." The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee, who was himself passed over for the job at State, also issued a favorable statement, though without saying how he planned to vote. Several other GOP committee members issued statements praising Tillerson or sounding open to his nomination. Still others were taking a wait-and-see approach, including Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who said: "Congress has the constitutional responsibility of advice and consent and we will rigorously exercise it." For congressional Republicans and Trump, a major question hanging over their emerging relationship is what steps Trump may take to keep party members in line, and how Republicans will respond in turn. Few GOP lawmakers, especially those up for re-election, want to be on the receiving end of a critical tweet from Trump. The Tillerson confirmation may offer clues to how that dynamic will play out throughout Trump's administration, including when Trump takes policy stances contrary to GOP dogma, such as pushing for stiff tariffs on imports or a massive infrastructure bill. Electoral considerations may already be playing into lawmakers' posture toward Trump. GOP Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, was one of the most outspoken Republicans against Trump ahead of the election, including challenging him to his face during a Capitol Hill visit in July. But Flake is up for re-election in 2018 in a state Trump won, and has already drawn a conservative primary opponent. On Tuesday, Flake issued a statement sounding open to Tillerson's nomination, citing his support from former secretaries of State and Defense marshaled by Trump's team. Backing from former Secretaries of State James Baker and Condoleezza Rice, and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates carry "considerable weight," Flake said. "I look forward to the hearings." Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.  
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