A long time ago, in a galaxy not all that far away, the opposition party in Congress killed a White House-hatched health care plan. The president was Bill Clinton, although the complex blueprint was midwifed by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, as she liked to be called.
The Republican effort to put a stake through the heart of Hillarycare was aided by a $20 million insurance industry-sponsored ad campaign remembered as the “Harry and Louise” ads. A middle-aged couple pore over piles of government-mandated paperwork and lament the spiraling costs and diminishing options that come with the new bureaucratic requirements, before delivering their signature line: “There’s got to be a better way.”
Two-and-a-half decades later, Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, sought to divert attention from his own party’s troubled health care legislation by invoking another distraught woman named Louise.
“It’s a lot like being in the back seat of a convertible with Thelma and Louise,” Roberts said, referring to 1991 film starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. It’s a grim reference, given that the title characters drive that convertible off a cliff to their deaths. Asked to elaborate, Roberts said, “I don’t want to drive the car off the cliff. I want to prevent the car that’s going off the cliff from going there, or if it has to go over the cliff with regards to what the Democrats want, then get out of the car.”
This murky metaphor put me in mind of another buddy movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” in which the protagonists also go out with guns blazing. The scene I’m thinking of is when Butch and Sundance are hired as mining company payroll guards in South America by a colorful U.S. expat named Percy Garris. “Morons!” Percy exclaims. “I’ve got morons on my team.”
That must be how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell felt when Sen. Jerry Moran, Roberts’ Sunflower State sidekick, acted in concert with Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee to undercut McConnell’s Obamacare alternative.
“We should not put our stamp of approval on bad policy,” Moran explained. Amen to that, but Jerry Moran was the first member of Congress who formally sought to repeal the Affordable Care Act. As his hometown paper noted matter-of-factly, Moran on Monday “became a major player in keeping the 7-year-old law alive.”
All week, political commentators across the ideological spectrum explained that the Republicans’ difficulties on health care underscored how much harder it is to govern than campaign. True, but it hardly suffices as an excuse. The Republican-controlled House voted to repeal Obamacare more than 50 times. Over in the Senate, the Republicans finally did it in December 2015, on a 52-47 vote, with both Lee and Moran voting with McConnell. They also shut the government down over Obamacare funding.
So, what’s the problem now, when a Republican president means that a vote to rescind Obamacare can’t be vetoed by its namesake — when repeal would actually mean repeal? For starters, Republicans lost two Senate seats in 2016, meaning that the GOP margin is thinner than before. Too thin, as it happens. Still, why can’t McConnell marshal the troops? Let’s examine the pockets of resistance and other hurdles:
The Donald Factor: President Trump has been all over the map, making it that much more difficult for GOP senators to take a hard vote. He’s variously endorsed repealing Obamacare without a replacement, repeal-and-replace, or just letting Obamacare fail on its own — all in just the past week.
The War Hero: Eighty-year-old John McCain, a former GOP presidential nominee and current Trump frenemy, was supporting McConnell’s repeal-and-replace legislation, but was suddenly hospitalized with brain cancer. His illness cast a pall over Washington and left Senate Republican leaders with only 51 votes.
The Mountaineers: In 2015 Shelley Moore Capito, the first female senator in West Virginia’s history, voted to repeal the ACA, but since then, the epidemic of heroin overdoses and other opiate-related deaths has devastated her state. Medicaid money is being used to fight this scourge, funding she fears will dry up under the GOP plans. “I did not come to Washington to hurt people,” she said. This issue also figures in the thinking of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, another wavering Republican.
The Cautious Caucus: Critics say some of these senators are hedging because the polling on Obamacare has shifted since the days when conservatives were blistering Democrats at town-hall meetings during the Obama years. Now it’s the other way around. Certainly, that criticism has been leveled at Jerry Moran.
The Independent: Officially, the U.S. Senate has two independents, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Susan Collins’ Maine compadre, Angus King. Sanders doesn’t count — he’s to the left of the Democrats; on health care, King doesn’t count, either — he’s with the Dems. On the GOP side, that leaves Susan Collins. In 2015, she was one of two moderates (Mark Kirk of Illinois was the other) to vote against Obamacare repeal. Kirk is gone, but Collins isn’t. She still believes the best thing to do about Obamacare is fix what’s wrong with it. She doesn’t want to repeal the whole thing and vote for a plan she thinks will disadvantage rural residents of her state. On this issue, she may well be the most consistent and intellectually honest person on Capitol Hill. The problem for McConnell is that meeting her concerns takes him in the opposite direction of appeasing …
The Tea Party: Mike Lee doesn’t fit the media’s stereotype of a knuckle-dragging right-winger. He’s friendly, handsome, courteous — and smart as hell. He’s also very conservative. Republicans ran on defunding or repealing Obamacare, and Lee doesn’t see why keeping a promise he made to voters makes him a bad guy. “I’m not being an absolutist,” he said Thursday of his opposition to the current bill. “I’m a little frustrated by some who are eager and willing to call me out for saying this doesn’t go far enough in doing what we promised to do for seven years.”
Lee is a problem for McConnell, but not an unforeseen one: Lee came to Washington in 2010 after mounting a Tea Party-backed primary challenge to a veteran Republican incumbent who until then was considered plenty conservative.
The Libertarian: Rand Paul is another no vote on the Republican alternative to the ACA. This isn’t a surprise, either. Like Collins, the Kentucky senator doesn’t really have a party. Although closer on most issues to Republicans than Democrats, Paul is really a Libertarian. But in our bipolar political system, he must choose one or the other. Although he picked the GOP, when it comes to federal regulation, Paul makes Mike Lee look like FDR. He was never going to be an easy vote for anything other than straight repeal, and it’s almost impossible to construct health care legislation that he and Collins would both support.
The “morons” line in “Butch Cassidy” was uttered by talented character actor Strother Martin. The line he is best known for comes from “Cool Hand Luke,” and when it comes to senators such as Mike Lee and Rand Paul, it is probably more apropos.
“What we have here is failure to communicate,” Martin’s character said. “Some men you just can’t reach.”
Carl M. Cannon is executive editor and Washington Bureau chief of RealClearPolitics.