Senator John McCain (R-AZ), recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, departs after returning to the Sen...

Suspense, taunts and cheers as the Senate health care debate moves forward

The Senate chamber is usually a noisy place during votes, with members from both parties chatting each other up while the roll call drones on. But on Tuesday, the chamber was eerily silent as senators prepared for one of the most dramatic votes in years.

When the day began, it was still unclear if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had enough support to start debate on the Republicans’ effort to overhaul the Affordable Care Act. Before the vote began, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and McConnell traded speeches on the Senate floor as members trickled into the chamber.

“We have a duty to act. The president is ready with his pen,” McConnell said, adding, “we can’t let this moment slip away.”

McConnell acknowledged that months ago, GOP lawmakers had not expected to find themselves in a position to roll back the health care law, a nod to the Republican establishment’s surprise that President Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. But “with a surprise election comes an opportunity to do things we thought were never possible,” McConnell said.

His pep talk over, McConnell asked for the vote to proceed. As soon as he did, roughly two dozen people in the visitors gallery overlooking the Senate floor — including some wearing white doctors coats — stood up and began chanting, “Kill the bill, don’t kill us!” As they were led away by security, several yelled: “Shame!”

McConnell, unfazed, waited them out and the vote began. Republicans, who hold 52 seats in the Senate, could only afford to lose two members. Senate GOP leaders had Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who announced last week that he has brain cancer, fly back to Washington to help secure the vote, adding another layer of drama to the day’s proceedings.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was the first Republican to vote no. She was soon joined by Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, leaving McConnell with no additional wiggle room. As the roll call continued, Republicans voted yes down the line (The Democrats abstained from voting in the initial go-around, though they later all voted against the measure.)

But five Republicans, including McCain, were absent from the chamber, more than enough to sink the motion. Eventually, three of them — Sens. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dan Sullivan of Alaska — arrived and cast a yes vote. McCain was expected to support the measure.

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That left the outcome in the hands of Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a conservative who had expressed ambivalence about moving forward with the debate. There was nothing for Republican leaders to do but wait for Johnson to show up and hope that he would vote yes.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the majority whip, conferred with McConnell, as Republicans milled about nervously behind them. Around 2:45 p.m., a rumor spread through the press gallery that Johnson had left the Capitol Building. Reporters sat with pens in hand (cell phones are not allowed in the press gallery), waiting to record Johnson’s vote.

Then, at 2:50, Johnson arrived and made a beeline for McConnell. They began a private, and what looked like a heated, conversation, as the entire chamber looked on. The exchange went on for one minute, and then another and another. Just as it seemed that Johnson might vote no, the chamber erupted in applause.

McCain had arrived, looking tired but still upbeat, sporting a bruise over his left eye where doctors operated on him just the previous week. Members of both parties gave him a standing ovation. McCain approached the Senate president’s podium and gave a double thumbs up — a signal that he was voting yes. Johnson also voted yes.

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The drama was over, though McCain would go on to give a moving speech calling on both parties to work together in the name of bipartisanship. Republicans had their votes. Vice President Mike Pence joined in to break the tie, giving the caucus the 51 votes needed to start debate on repealing and replacing Obamacare.

It’s still unclear what the final Senate legislation will be — and whether Republicans will have enough votes to either repeal and replace the health care law, or simply repeal it outright. But on Tuesday, the caucus just needed enough votes to move forward. For McConnell, the drama was a small price to pay.