When John McCain cast the decisive vote against Obamacare repeal two months ago, Chuck Schumer waved an arm to quiet fellow Democrats as they burst into audible elation.
Don’t gloat or cheer over the GOP’s failure, Schumer signaled — a move he made again on Friday in a statement, after McCain delivered what looks like a fatal blow to his party’s seven-year drive to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
Far from celebrating, Democrats tempered their responses to McCain with reminders of the bipartisan health care talks that Republicans had walked away from when they took one last shot at repealing Obamacare. And even as their liberal base turned a rally to pressure McCain into a thank-you celebration, Democrats stopped far short of declaring repeal dead.
“John McCain shows the same courage in Congress that he showed when he was a naval aviator,” the Senate minority leader said in his statement about the Arizona Republican’s opposition to repeal. “I have assured Senator McCain that as soon as repeal is off the table, we Democrats are intent on resuming the bipartisan process.”
A senior Senate Democratic aide summed up the next step: “Now we extend the olive branch to bipartisanship.”
The latest Obamacare repeal gambit, shepherded this time by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.), caught many Democratic lawmakers and liberal activists off-guard. They reminded one another publicly and privately on Friday that, McCain’s opposition aside, only the Sept. 30 expiration of Republicans’ ability to push through repeal with 50 votes can give Obamacare supporters room to breathe easy.
“This bill is not dead yet,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) tweeted. “You can relax on October 1. They never let up, and neither can we.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office did not immediately respond to questions about whether he will still hold the vote on the bill, which would turn Obamacare funding into block grants for the states, make deep cuts to Medicaid and undermine protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Proponents say it would provide needed flexibility to governors to administer health care.
One Democratic aide advised the party to maintain a dual mission: “Democrats need to stay vocal about the dangers of this bill and keep pushing for bipartisan solutions.”
Liberal groups that had hustled their grass-roots cavalry back to Democrats’ side are staying vocal, despite some lingering frustration over Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) cutting a short-term fiscal deal with President Donald Trump.
Anti-repeal activists are pressing ahead with their plans for dozens of rallies this weekend, with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee maintaining a five-figure ad campaign it rolled out Friday that targets GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Dean Hellerof Nevada, Susan Collins of Maine, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
“Until we have three rock-solid nos that are public, we shouldn’t assume that everything is completely off the table next week,” MoveOn.org Washington director Ben Wikler said in an interview.
In a move sure to please Democrats, McCain’s lengthy statement on his opposition to the Graham-Cassidy bill also included an encouragement of the bipartisan talks led by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to shore up insurance markets, which GOP leadership had all but quashed earlier this week.
“I fear that the prospect of one last attempt at a strictly Republican bill has left the impression that their efforts cannot succeed,” McCain said of Alexander and Murray. “I hope they will resume their work should this last attempt at a partisan solution fail.”
Murray quickly released a statement describing herself as “still at the table ready to keep working,” adding, “I remain confident that we can reach a bipartisan agreement as soon as this latest partisan approach by Republican leaders is finally set aside.”
Minutes after McCain’s announcement, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) blasted out an email to her colleagues, urging them to move ahead with plans to hold events in opposition to the bill this weekend despite the likelihood that repeal cannot move forward.
“This weekend, we will continue to highlight the devastating costs Republicans are trying to inflict on hard-working Americans,” Pelosi said. “Together, we will finally put the stake in the heart of this monstrous bill.”
Pelosi will also hold a conference call with health care advocates and progressive allies on Saturday and talk health care on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
Before McCain upended the latest Republican repeal drive, several Democratic aides had privately echoed some liberal activists’ complaints that Schumer and Pelosi’s debt-limit deal backfired — clearing the September calendar and giving Republicans more time to turn their focus to health care. But Pelosi brushed aside the insinuation when asked by reporters, saying the two issues “aren’t even related.”
Other Democrats had fretted about the timing of Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders’ splashy single-payer health care rollout, which Republicans quickly seized on as a talking point to rally their troops behind repeal. Democrats publicly dismissed that claim but say privately they don’t want to antagonize Republicans until the Sept. 30 deadline is past.
Part of Democrats’ guarded tone on Friday is rooted in lessons learned from previous exultation earlier this year, when they thought the GOP had been thwarted, only to see another repeal push roar back to life.
Pelosi’s tone, while more aggressive than Schumer’s, is a far cry from those previous celebrations.
“I call upon Speaker [Paul] Ryan to now initiate a bipartisan effort in the House to improve and update the Affordable Care Act,” she said.
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