Sen. Lindsey Graham had just finished a day as the star of the Senate, the man dozens of reporters chased and the vice president wanted as his travel companion.
So as the work day ended, a tired but exhilarated Graham stood in a Senate elevator, the doors closing between him as another pack of reporters struggled to hear one final sentence.
“It was a good day, wasn’t it?” the South Carolina Republican said to one reporter who had managed to follow him inside.
It was, indeed, a very good day for Graham.
But it may be his best day for awhile, because one good day in the Senate doesn’t automatically translate into legislative success. And for all the attention and camaraderie, prospects for Graham’s plan to overhaul the nation’s health system remain murky. So murky that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will not commit to a floor vote.
Graham’s ultimate goal is to secure passage of legislation that would send all Obamacare money back to the states in the form of block grants, a policy shift proponents say would be a victory for federalism. Critics call it a dangerous political stunt.
Despite a hard sell from Pence, endorsements from GOP leaders on both sides of the Capitol and a steady mobilization of influential conservative thought leaders, a handful of Senate Republicans remain uncomfortable with the bill’s many unknowns. They want to know how deep Medicaid cuts could go. Or how much premiums could rise. Is this really a good deal for states, they ask? Will this even work?
Then there were those ideological purists who say the bill doesn’t go far enough, since the block grants are funded by maintaining Obamacare’s controversial taxes on the wealthy.
September 30 is the hard deadline for action. After that date, Senate Republicans will no longer be able to limit debate with 51 votes under a procedure known as “reconciliation.” They’ll need 60 and they only control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats.
The votes aren’t there yet, and most senators left town Tuesday evening for the balance of the week in observance of the Jewish New Year. McConnell’s refusal to commit to floor action was seen as an acknowledgment that if Republican leaders can't guarantee support, they would rather cast the issue aside than face the embarrassment of watching another GOP health care bill collapse.
Republicans are going to try hard to win this one. Repealing and replacing Obamacare was a centerpiece of the party’s 2016 campaign. Graham’s quest had seemed an impossible dream only days ago, until the White House and other Republicans saw it as a last-ditch chance to salvage a win.
That’s why Graham, who had been in New York City, started his Tuesday morning with a ride back to Washington on Air Force Two with Pence. The vice president then visited the Capitol that afternoon to personally asked Senate Republicans to support Graham’s proposal.
Shortly afterward, Graham had the spotlight at McConnell’s weekly press briefing, a coveted guest shot at an event that attracts dozens of reporters and cameras.
But even in the Senate halls, some Republicans were not enthusiastic. Some wondered if a bill backed by Republicans only would hurt chances in the future to seek bipartisan consensus.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said the likelihood of reaching consensus with his Democratic counterparts on a compromise health care bill has now almost totally diminished. He noted how many Democrats were now backing a “Medicare for all” plan, a favorite of the party’s progressive wing.
“It got a lot harder in the last five days when 15 Democrats got on their horse about Medicare for all, prompting Republicans to begin repeal-and-replace again,” Alexander said. “A week ago, we had an environment in which it was easy to see how we might be able to get a limited bipartisan agreement … It just got harder today.”
Alexander was referencing liberal Democrats’ embrace last week of legislation to move to a single-payer health care system on the same day Graham formally unveiled his proposal.
Graham gleefully gave credit to progressives for scaring conservatives into supporting his bill as an alternative to “socialism,” calling Democrats’ gambit “a gift from the political gods.”
As Tuesday wore on, Graham was largely repeating the same talking points as he went about his business, sticking to his script and remaining bullish on prospects for victory. Asked in the late afternoon what it would mean for him if his efforts fell short, he maintained the pose of the happy warrior.
“Winning, for me, is fighting as hard as you can for something you believe in,” he said.
Lesley Clark, Lindsay Wise and William Douglas contributed
Emma Dumain: @emma_dumain