WASHINGTON — Short on votes and time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is moving on from health care for now and turning his conference's attention to its next big legislative priority: tax reform.
Abandoning health care is a major disappointment for a party that has campaigned on the issue for three election cycles and made it its top legislative priority after gaining control of the White House in January. Republicans, in need of a major legislative victory, are now placing their emphasis on the urgency of passing tax reform.
Republican senators decided during their weekly conference lunch on Tuesday to avoid a public defeat and not put a health care measure that was a sure loser up for a vote, with three GOP senators explicitly against it and others wavering.
"We've made the decision that, since we don't have the votes, we are going to postpone the vote," said Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, the co-author with Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina of the bill that represented Republicans' latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. "Am I disappointed? Absolutely."
With no Democrats supporting the repeal of Obamacare, Senate Republicans could afford to lose the support of only two of their 52 members and still pass the bill. On Monday evening, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine became the third GOP senator to publicly oppose the measure, delivering a fatal blow to what was already a last-ditch effort. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and John McCain of Arizona had previously said that they were against the measure.
The Graham-Cassidy legislation was the latest version in a series of efforts to partially repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, but none were able to find the 50 votes needed to pass.
The Senate only has until Sept. 30 before the legislative vehicle known as reconciliation expires; under reconciliation, a simple majority of 50 votes is needed to pass legislation instead of the usual 60.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, released a statement after the bill was declared dead that still didn't say whether she supported the bill. But she outlined her concerns with the process and the unique challenges facing Alaska.
"I appreciate the efforts of my colleagues, Senator Graham and Senator Cassidy, but they have run up against a hard deadline and a lousy process. Time has not been on their side," Murkowski wrote. "U.S. Senate cannot get the text of a bill on a Sunday night, then proceed to a vote just days later, with only one hearing — and especially not on an issue that is intensely personal to all of us."
There are discussions about possibly trying again next year, using a new budget reconciliation for 2019 — only one per fiscal year is available — or tying health care to tax reform. But Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., called those discussions "premature" and "complicated."
"Until we have 50 for some sort of health care reform that repeals and replaces Obamacare, I don't anticipate that we'll bring that up again," Thune said.
But the reality is that health care is not likely to be revived before the end of the year. "The bill is dead. It's deader than a door nail," said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.
Republicans are now worrying about the process moving ahead on tax reform. Even as the outline negotiated between Republican leaders and the administration is set to be released on Wednesday, senators were issuing a warning shot to their leaders.
"I'm tired of screwing around," Kennedy said. "I want to do tax reform, but I'm not going to go through tax reform like I just went through health care where you don't know what's in the bill. It's changing four times and you're supposed to go defend it."
House Republicans, who did pass a version of Obamacare repeal in May, were disappointed with their congressional colleagues.
"So yes, we're a little frustrated that the Senate has not acted on a seminal promise, health care," House Speaker Paul Ryan said on Tuesday, adding, "By the way — Obamacare's collapsing."