Mitch McConnell
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Yesterday, I wrote that I was surprised that the Senate Republicans agreed to bring up the health care bill because “losing this vote would have been the most painless way to end their agony.” A reader of mine reacted with some confusion, asking me, “Agony? Show me the agony.” And he followed that up with an astute observation: “It is beginning to become somewhat evident to me that there is not really a significant amount of agony among Republicans at all. I think that deep down, they really want this win more than they fear the results of actually doing this.” In this assessment, he is joined by many others. I think James Hohmann put it best, backing up my reader’s point while also doing a decent job of explaining my own:

“It’s hard to overstate the degree to which White House officials and Senate GOP leaders just want to pass something — really, anything — to show the base that they are keeping their promise to roll back Obamacare. They would happily portray even most modest tweaks to the Affordable Care Act as major successes to save face. As far as they’re concerned, whatever gets passed will be the basis for negotiations with the House. So this is not even a final product.”

“Opening floor debate may be a Pyrrhic victory for the GOP: Democrats are going to force Republicans to cast some uncomfortable votes in the coming days as part of the freewheeling amendment process. Regardless of whether a bill ultimately passes, and how they try to spin it, every senator who voted for the motion to proceed just gave years of fodder to Democratic admakers.”

For one thing, the agony comes from an inability to reach consensus within the party which has imperiled their entire legislative strategy for the year. At a certain point, it’s just embarrassing and a huge time sink, and the best thing to do is to cut your losses and stop humiliating yourself. This has the advantage of letting you move on to things their either need to get done or at least have some prospect of getting done in a satisfactory manner.

But Hohmann points out something additional, which I have also mentioned before. And this is the fact that the Democrats can now offer one brutal amendment after another that will become fodder for running against Republican senators for years to come. Even the vote that happened yesterday on McConnell’s bill was brutal. Why do you think senators like Capito and Heller and Portman voted for a bill that they said they would never vote for? It’s because they want to minimize how many times they have to vote no. They don’t want to hear the criticism from the base, but they’ve opened themselves up to the most accurate charges of hypocrisy and cowardice. I’d add McCain to this list, but he’s not likely to be worried about reelection. I don’t know what he is thinking.

Republican senators didn’t need to be taking these votes that will nail them coming and going. I referred to this process as McConnell trolling his own caucus either out of spite or because he’s too weak to stand up to the president and protect his members.

Yet, the other motivation is a kind of desperation to pass the buck. The House passed an unworkable bill to the Senate to get the heat off themselves. The Senate can’t quite reciprocate, but they can at least pass some kind of skinny repeal and bounce it back in the House’s lap for a while.

If they do this, it will be one of the most irresponsible things our government has ever done, because they’ll remove the employee and individual mandates (along with a medical device tax that is important for revenue) simply because they’re unpopular measures, without the slightest regard for what this would do to the insurance markets that would be crippled with overly sick pools of customers. I do not doubt that the Republicans in the Senate will succeed in this if for no other reason than almost none of them have any courage.

This would not solve their problems. It would exacerbate them badly because they’d now own the resulting damage. It’s like trying to kick your prescription painkiller addiction by taking up a needle and shooting heroin into your veins. It solves the pains of withdrawal by making it even more painful to quit.

As disastrous as this now likely outcome would be, it would still represent a victory of sorts for ObamaCare because it would keep the Medicaid expansion in place and the regulatory scheme. What would be left is a collapsing individual marketplace and a political party and administration in charge with no ability, knowledge, or willingness to fix it.

The sheer self-injurious stupidity of this move might prevent it from happening. It will only take the courage of three Republican senators, after all, and there are two who have already shown that they have a little courage. It’s depressing that even with these seemingly good odds, I can’t express optimism.

If they had any sense, they would have cut bait long before now.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at