Yet Democrats see a political winner, too. Obama and his allies in Congress love to mock the GOP’s obsession with repeal, frequently pointing out the 50-plus times that the House had previously passed doomed bills to dismantle the law. And they will undoubtedly use the moment to highlight the fact that Republicans still have not kept their oft-repeated promise to not only repeal but replace the Affordable Care Act.
The repeal votes in the House and Senate were, like so many before them, purely symbolic. In an odd twist of the political dynamic in Washington, the only reason Republicans were able to muster the votes to pass it in the Senate was that it stood no chance of becoming law. Because if Obamacare were repealed without a replacement ready, the health-care system would be thrown into chaos, with millions of Americans poised to lose insurance either on the exchanges or from Medicaid. As it is, Democrats plan to target Republican senators up for reelection next year and accuse them of voting to kick needy constituents off Medicaid.
The measure passed by the Senate on Thursday doesn't actually repeal Obamacare in its entirety. To be able to pass a bill with a simple majority of 51 votes, rather than the filibuster-proof threshold of 60, Republicans needed to use a process known as budget reconciliation, which requires that provisions directly affect the budget. (Democrats used this same process to pass part of the original law in 2010 after Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts Senate race deprived them of their 60th vote.) As such, the bill does not scrap the health law’s provisions allowing parents to keep their children covered under their insurance plans through age 26, or the prohibition on insurers discriminating against people with preexisting conditions, among others. But it does gut the law by eliminating the insurance exchanges and subsidies, and by repealing the Medicaid expansion accepted by 30 states.
The Senate bill is much more robust than a version that passed the House, as Republican leaders tried to prevent defections from conservatives like Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee who said it would be meaningless to snip at the law rather than eviscerate it. The measure also defunds Planned Parenthood, but that provision drew protests from centrist Republican Senators Susan Collins, Mark Kirk, and Lisa Murkowski, who failed in their attempt to restore funding by amendment.
McConnell opened the floor to amendments on Thursday afternoon, and following the mass shootings in Colorado and California in the span of a few days, Democrats used the opportunity to force votes on measures to expand gun background checks and prevent people on the terrorist watch list from buying firearms.
Yet it was a political move more than anything. Legislatively, it made little sense, because if Republicans did accept the amendments, then Obama would have been forced to veto a bill that included gun-control provisions he has been demanding for years. Republicans turned them aside anyway. An amendment from Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein to prevent the sale of guns to suspected terrorists drew just one Republican vote, while a bipartisan measure on background checks from Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican, earned four votes from Republicans. (It was the same measure that failed to pass the Senate in 2013 after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.)