WASHINGTON (Reuters)—After a months-long struggle, Republicans have succeeded in bringing Obamacare repeal legislation, a centerpiece of their 2016 election campaigns, to a debate on the U.S. Senate floor. Now the hard part begins.
Republicans, deeply divided over the proper role of the government in helping low-income people receive healthcare, eked out a procedural win on Tuesday when the Senate voted 51-50, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking a tie, to allow debate to start on legislation.
The outcome came as a huge relief to President Donald Trump, who has called Obamacare a “disaster” and pushed fellow Republicans in recent days to follow through on the party’s seven-year quest to roll back the law.
But hours later, Senate Republican leadership suffered a setback when the repeal-and-replace plan that they had been working on since May failed to get enough votes for approval, with nine out of 52 Republicans voting against it.
Usually, bills reach the floor with a predictable outcome: Senators have received summaries of the legislation to be debated that were written in an open committee process, leaders have counted the number of supporters and opponents, amendments are debated and everybody knows the likely outcome: passage.
All that is out the window now, as the Republican-led Senate on Wednesday continues a freewheeling debate that could stretch through the week on undoing major portions of Democratic President Barack Obama’s 2010 framework, which expanded health insurance to about 20 million people, many of them low-income.
More votes were expected at around 11:30 a.m. (1530 GMT), as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell exhorted senators to bring amendments to the floor. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer urged the Senate to scrap the entire exercise and move to bipartisan discussions on improving Obamacare.
“Ultimately we want to get legislation to finally end the failed Obamacare legislation through Congress and to the president’s desk for his signature,” McConnell said, while noting the difficulties ahead.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price told CNBC in an interview on Wednesday that Senate Republicans should aim for the “lowest common denominator” in order to get the 50 votes needed to pass a bill.
Republican leaders have insisted they can devise a cheaper approach this week and with less government intrusion into consumers’ healthcare decisions than Obamacare, formally known as the Affordable Care Act.
Democrats and other critics of the Republican effort said it would deprive millions of health coverage.