McCain Didn't Stop The Obamacare Repeal — The Friendship Between Collins And Murkowski Did

There is a lot more to this story.

We've all seen the camaraderie between John McCain and Lindsay Graham and the bromance beween Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama, but now a powerful new pair is emerging: Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski.


Murkowski, Sen. Shelley Capito, and Collins.

The two moderate Republican senators from Maine and Alaska, respectively, have become a unified front against some of President Donald Trump's most visible efforts to push hardline policies with no bipartisan support. While their friendship culminated in a dramatic vote to stop the so-called "skinny repeal" of Obamacare late Thursday night, it's been a force to be reckoned with for quite some time. 

Collins and her mentor, former Sen. Barbara Mikulski.

Earlier this week, Murkowski and Collins were the only two Republicans to defect on a vote to move to debate the repeal of Obamacare, once again forcing Pence to intervene and break a Senate tie. Their opposition came after they and the three other women in the GOP Senate were excluded from a 13-person working group to draft the Better Care Reconciliation Act, also known as Trumpcare. The result was a bill that called for defunding Planned Parenthood and deep cuts to Medicaid, two issues that Sen. Murkowski and Sen. Collins have been consistently critical of.

This tension culminated in a vote on Thursday night that might have been the Republican Senate's last chance to force through a repeal of Obamacare down party lines. After seven years of promising to repeal Obamacare, Republican Senate leaders met on Thursday afternoon to draft a bill that they could send to the House as an effort to get to the next step of the legislative process. Murkowski, Collins and McCain first saw the skinny repeal bill just hours before the vote.

The move was exactly the kind of unprecedented partisan push that Sen. McCain had derided earlier in the week during a now famous speech he gave on the Senate floor in his first public appearance since being diagnosed with brain cancer. At the time, McCain called for a "return to regular order" and bipartisan legislation.

It was also the kind of partisan, hasty process Murkowski and Collins had repeatedly said they would not accept. Not long before the vote, the Congressional Budget Office released its score of the skinny repeal, and it was not good: 16 million people would lose health insurance by 2026 and premiums on the exchanges would go up 20 percent. 

All this led to the Hollywood-like tension in the Senate chamber late Thursday night. Vice President Mike Pence drove to the Capitol and did his best to lobby McCain to change his vote, talking to him for more than 20 minutes at one point on the Senate floor. At the same time, Sens. Blunt, Thune and Sullivan were lobbying Murkowski to change her vote. Senator Wicker was debating with Collins. But the two female senators, at times flanking Sen. McCain and also seen laughing and smiling through the drama, stuck together. 

At about 1:30 a.m. on Friday morning, after Sen. Murkowski and Sen. Collins had voted "no" on the skinny repeal, the effort to repeal Obamacare took a dramatic blow when Sen. McCain approached the front of the chamber and voted the measure down. The climactic scene ended with an eruption of cheers and applause from the Democratic side of the chamber that was immediately quieted by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. 

All of this unfolded with Washington D.C. reporters watching from the press gallery and Americans at home watching the live stream on C-SPAN late into the night. And while many of the headlines focus on Sen. McCain, it was the unlikely bond of two senators from Maine and Alaska that truly put a stop to the wild push for a repeal. 

The failed vote, which ended 51-49 against, leaves few options for the Republican-led Congress in repealing Obamacare going forward. Instead, it looks as though they will have to work across the aisle and find legislation that can earn 60 votes in the Senate to become law. The Senate is currently made up of 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats.

As the night came to a close, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Schumer both delivered emotional speeches, each getting choked up while they spoke. Sen. McConnell expressed his disappointment but insisted that it was time to "move on" and work with the other side. 

"The American people are going to regret that we couldn't find a better way forward," McConnell said. "And as I said, we look forward to our colleagues on the other side suggesting what they have in mind."

As for Murkowski and Collins' stalwart refusal to back down on their votes into the wee hours of the night, a comment once made the former comes to mind. One snowy 2016 day following a blizzard, Murkowski looked award the Senate chamber and saw that only female senators had arrived to work.

"Perhaps it just speaks to the heartiness of women," she told The Washington Post at the time, "that you put on your boots and put your hat on and get out, slog through the mess that is out there."

In June of 2016, the more moderate Sen. Collins was already questioning whether then-candidate Trump could govern. She went as far as openly floating the idea that she might vote for Hillary Clinton. Murkowski, however, did not withdraw her support for Trump until the release of the now infamous Washington Post tapes in which President Trump tacitly admitted to sexually assaulting women.

"I cannot and will not support Donald Trump for president," Sen. Murkowski said in the wake of the tapes. "He has forfeited the right to be our party's nominee."

The pair's first highly publicized stand came in February when Murkowski and Collins announced their opposition to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in back-to-back speeches. Their "no" votes forced the unusual spectacle of Vice President Mike Pence having to break the Senate tie to confirm the controversial nominee. It wouldn't be the last time they forced Pence to get involved, either. 


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