After a marathon session of votes that lasted into the early hours of Thursday morning, the Senate passed a Republican budget that sets in motion repeal of Obamacare.
The 51-48 vote came after a 7-hour “vote-a-rama” — a rapid-fire series of more than a dozen votes on some of the hottest political issues of the day. The budget, which is expected to be taken up by the House Friday, does not become law. It does, however, provide for a powerful procedural tool known as reconciliation to let Republicans dismantle the health law with simple majorities in the House and Senate. Senate adoption of the budget is the first step in that process.
The quirky Senate ritual of vote-a-rama can be a potent political weapon for the minority to force tough votes, and Democrats sought to squeeze the GOP repeatedly for targeting Obamacare. Republicans, for their part, easily rejected the Democrats’ proposals, which they said they would upend the repeal effort for procedural reasons.
Democrats sought to drive a wedge between Senate Republicans and President-elect Donald Trump by pushing multiple amendments to curb the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs. Trump slammed the pharmaceutical industry as “getting away with murder” at his Wednesday press conference and promised the federal government would soon start negotiating with the industry for better prices. An amendment from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to allow the importation of drugs from Canada failed 46-52, but 12 Republicans voted for it.
Democrats also forced Republicans to balk at supporting popular provisions in the health law. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) offered an amendment to prevent discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions; Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) tried to block “legislation that makes women sick again” by stripping women’s health care services provided under Obamacare. Both proposals went down to defeat, 49-49.
Senate Republicans dismissed the Democratic efforts to put them in a bind. “I’m sure the political strategists over here are trying to figure out the votes that can be used in the political process,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.). “But the voters of people’s states understand that they’re just playing politics.”
In perhaps the most significant move of the night, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) withdrew an amendment he and several moderate Republicans had proposed to delay by more than a month the deadline for committees to draft the Obamacare repeal bill. A growing number of rank-and-file Republicans have expressed unease about repealing the law without having a replacement ready, for fear of the chaos that could be unleashed on the health system.
But Corker said he was reassured after GOP leadership told him the original Jan. 27 target was “a placeholder” and not a firm deadline to write a reconciliation bill. “We plan to withdraw this amendment,” he said, “and place our faith in the fact that we’re going to do this in a manner that works well for the American people.”
Sanders was not impressed. “I understand Sen. Corker wants more time,” he said. “Maybe they will develop a plan, but right now, what they are talking about is repealing legislation which has brought millions of people health care and they have no substitute.”
The bitter partisan feelings extended until the very end. Democrats stood at their desks to oppose the budget in a sign of solemnity. And when the senators tried to make a brief statement explaining their vote, they were sternly interrupted by the chair and told that “debate is not in order during a vote.”