McCain casts a decisive vote against ’skinny repeal’ in late-night drama

WASHINGTON — Republican efforts to overhaul the Affordable Care Act suffered a dramatic fall backward, and the 2018 defense policy bill seemed to take a modest step forward early Friday.

After a stunning late-night vote in which Sens. John McCain, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins — all Republicans — voted with Democrats to shoot down the GOP’s closely held “skinny repeal” bill, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was ready to let the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act advance.

McCain, of Arizona, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the committee’s ranking member, Jack Reed, D-R.I., arrived at a bipartisan agreement “on a list of amendments that can be agreed to, and we can finish this bill,” according to Schumer. That suggests but does not guarantee a fast track for the bill.

The surprise 49-51 vote on healthcare capped a suspenseful night, which saw reporters straining to interpret the body language of McCain and other senators on the floor for clues to how they would vote. At one point, McCain was engaged in discussion by Vice President Mike Pence, who was there to break a tie that never happened.

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In a hallway interview beforehand, McCain had stymied reporters who asked how he’d vote. “Watch for the show,” he said.

McCain voted Tuesday in favor of a procedural motion to take up the bill after returning to Washington following surgery for a brain tumor. He also delivered a rousing speech on bipartisanship that condemned the secretive process for the bill.

In a Senate floor exchange Thursday, Schumer rejected McCain’s request to pause the health care debate and take up the NDAA, standing on principle that Republicans needed to open the process on healthcare. Though the Senate is scheduled to be in session until Aug. 11, it was unclear whether the request was driven by a need for McCain to leave town for treatment.

Behind the scenes Thursday, Reed and McCain were hammering out a deal to move forward on the NDAA.

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In the immediate aftermath of the vote, around 1:30 a.m., McConnell did ask for unanimous consent to move to the NDAA. But Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., voiced an objection without explaining why, which paused the proceedings.

McConnell later advanced a judicial nomination for the Senate to take up when it meets next, on Monday.

“This is clearly a disappointing moment,” McConnell said. “Our constituents have suffered through an awful lot under Obamacare. We thought they deserved better. It’s why I and many of my colleagues did as we promised and voted to repeal this failed law. We told our constituents we would vote that way. And when the moment came, when the moment came, most of us did.”

“It’s time to move on,” he said.

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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