With all of Washington watching, Sen. Lindsey Graham insisted Monday momentum was growing for his bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
Tuesday, he went to the microphones in a hallway outside the Senate chamber before dozens of reporters and conceded defeat.
Not since he withdrew from the 2016 presidential race has Graham endured such a personal, public disappointment.
Yet the South Carolina Republican didn’t appear downtrodden or demoralized as he faced the media mob on Tuesday.
In fact, the 22-year congressional veteran put on the face of a happy warrior and all but declared victory at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
“With a new process, with more hearings...we’re going to get [the] votes,” said Graham. “The reason I say that is because I believe it. It’s not about our idea being lacking … I am confident as I can be that [this bill] will be the alternative to Obamacare. It will be in this Congress.”
Graham added Republicans were prepared to return to the health care issue early next year, ostensibly after Congress passes an overhaul of the nation’s tax code. He and his allies would use the time between now and then, Graham explained, to hold hearings and debate the issues. They would then craft a final product that enough Republicans and even some Democrats could support.
At the moment, though, the Republicans’ seven-year-old drive to end Obamacare is almost certainly over for the year, with no guarantee the GOP can deliver in the future. Republicans control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats, and so far they haven’t been able to advance any plan, Tuesday’s included.
Graham’s optimism might appear out of touch with reality, as large segments of the country hated his plan. His colleagues, however, didn’t seem terribly surprised by his level of confidence in himself and his proposal for radically transforming the American health care system by sending all Obamacare money back to the states in the form of block grants.
“I think he’s encouraged, to be honest with you,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., told McClatchy. “I think, in a very odd way, the process has been very helpful.”
Scott explained that Graham, in educating himself about health policy, has educated others. While Scott sold health insurance for years before entering politics, Graham knew little about health care policy before teaming up with Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., a physician, and former Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Rick Santorum.
“Frankly, I think the day we get this [bill] passed, part of that will be because people are better educated about the challenges and complexities of health care,” Scott added.
Of course, Graham’s poise might also have been the product of 22 years of practice at being a politician who thrives in the spotlight and rarely declines an opportunity to engage with the press.
“If I knew the policy, he knew the politics,” Cassidy said of his experience working with Graham on their proposal. Unlike Graham, however, Cassidy acknowledged he was disappointed in the outcome.
Both men had both been working on overdrive to gather support for their proposal, which they first conceived in late July. They only produced a written text last week. Each has been calling governors and meeting with colleagues. Graham has been in near-constant contact with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Though Graham reportedly met with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in a last-ditch effort to win her support for the health care bill on Tuesday morning, the hours leading up to the afternoon press conference otherwise had the feel of just another ordinary, busy day.
He kicked things off at a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on a pair of bills – one of which he cosponsored – that would prevent Trump from firing the special counsel appointed to oversee the investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election.
“I think my colleagues from both parties agree that firing [special counsel Robert] Mueller would be a grave mistake. For example, Sen. Graham, star of stage, screen and radio now,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, quipped, alluding to Graham’s saturation media coverage.
From there Graham went to a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, where debate on reappointing Joseph F. Dunford as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was under way.
The senator missed a visit from six of his constituents from Myrtle Beach who had driven to Washington to hand-deliver a letter in opposition to the pending health care proposal. They spoke to a young aide in his Capitol Hill office instead.
Cassidy told McClatchy that by the time Senate Republicans entered their weekly, closed-door luncheon around 12:30 p.m., he, Graham and GOP leaders had held a conference call to determine there would not be a vote on the pending health care bill, fearful another failure would add to their humiliation at being unable to deliver on their pledge to repeal Obamacare.
Graham had been clamoring for a vote regardless of the outcome, but didn’t begrudge leaders their decision as he faced the media after the luncheon.
And at the end of all this, Graham insisted he’d actually had fun.
“I've been up here 20 years,” Graham said. “I've never enjoyed anything more.”
Emma Dumain @emma_dumain