Fueled by pizza and Red Bull, Senate takes first step to repeal Obamacare

Senate Republicans shored up divisions within their own ranks and mowed down Democratic opposition early Thursday, advancing a campaign promise to deliver a speedy repeal of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

After a marathon, 7 hour session, the final tally to advance repeal was 51 to 48. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who wants to vote on a replacement plan at the same time as a repeal, cast the sole Republican vote against the measure.

“The Obamacare bridge is collapsing and we’re sending in a rescue team,” said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, the Senate’s budget chair, who cheered passage of the measure that instructs committees to write legislation repealing the law. The House is expected to take up the measure as soon as Friday.

The vote to advance didn’t happen without a fight. Democrats, who might not be able to stop Republicans but sought to make it as uncomfortable as possible, took advantage of an arcane Senate tradition known as a “vote-a-rama,” forcing Republicans to take votes on some of the more popular provisions of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Every Democratic amendment, including provisions that some Republicans favor, such as allowing children to remain on their parents’ health care plans, failed.

“You are stealing health care from Americans, I vote no,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said as the votes were tallied.

The late-night voting marathon came as some Republicans have expressed unease with the speed of the repeal, especially because the party has been unable to agree on a replacement.

But in a clear win for Republican leadership, several Republicans who were worried about the political perils of a rapid repeal withdrew an amendment that would have extended the deadline for delivering the plan to repeal to March 3, rather than Jan. 27. The senators said they had obtained assurances from leadership that the January date is “not set in stone,” but represents the earliest date that a plan could be readied.

Earlier, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said outside the Senate chamber that the March date would give lawmakers more time to come up with a replacement, citing the “complexities” of repealing the legislation. She said a number of Republicans have ideas and plans to replace the law, “but to reach a consensus, we could really use that additional time.”

The votes on the measure came hours after Trump increased the pressure on his fellow Republicans, suggesting at his first press conference since winning the election that he’d introduce his own bill and expected a speedy, near-simultaneous repeal and replace.

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the budget resolution that cleared the Senate “provides the legislative tools necessary to actually repeal this failed law while we move ahead with smarter health care policies.”

Collins said she agreed with Trump that the two actions should be closely paired, but said it may take more time: “I don’t see any possibility of us being able to come up with a comprehensive reform bill that would replace Obamacare by the end of this month,” she said. “I just don’t see that as being feasible.”

Simply repealing key pieces of the law without replacing it could run the risk of cutting off health care for the 20 million people who, because of the Affordable Care Act, get coverage through the Medicaid program or receive federal help to pay their costs.

As the night began, Democrats offered amendments to protect individual provisions of the 2010 law and to put Republicans on the spot by forcing them to vote against popular measures.

“If you really want to rile up the senior citizens of this country, then you start taking away their prescription drugs,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., argued on the Senate floor in support of his amendment which he said would prevent would prevent scrapping Affordable Care Act provisions aimed at closing the gap in Medicare’s prescription drug coverage, commonly known as the “donut hole.” Nelson said the measure has helped seniors in Florida save nearly $1,000 a year on prescription drugs.

But as he would throughout the night, Enzi, the Wyoming senator, shot him down: The measure was “outside the scope of what’s appropriate,” Enzi told Nelson. A vote in favor, he added, would be “a vote against repealing Obamacare.”

The amendments ranged from the serious to pointed political rhetoric. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, offered an amendment protesting that repeal could cut treatments for substance abuse and worsen opioid abuse. A Harvard Medical School and New York University review released Wednesday estimated that repeal could drain as much as $5.5 billion a year from treatment for mental and substance use disorders.

Already declared “out of order” before the session began was Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine’s bid to “prohibit legislation to make America sick again” -- the slogan Democrats have adopted to criticize the repeal effort by playing off Trump’s iconic “Make America Great Again” rallying cry.

Two hours into the overnighter, boxes of pizzas were delivered to the Senate floor. And Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., arrived with baskets of Indiana popcorn, caramels, Red Bull and Diet Mountain Dew.

“It’s going to be a late night,” he said, offering the provisions to reporters outside the chamber. “I wanted to bring on the Indiana.”

Four years ago, the vote-a-rama took 13 hours, involved voting on 101 amendments and ended at 4:56 a.m.. In 2015, the marathon began in the afternoon, involved 40 amendments and lasted until 4:22 a.m. the next day.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark