Inside the life and death of Graham-Cassidy

 In U.S.

Sen. Lindsey Graham offered a eulogy for the GOP’s Obamacare repeal effort on Tuesday, but seized on one bright spot as a reason not to give up after a parade of health care disappointments.

During a closed-door party meeting to discuss their terms of surrender, he told fellow Republicans that Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who opposed repeal over the summer, said she’d be open to his plan under other conditions, according to GOP senators in the room.

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The decision on Tuesday not to vote on the Graham-Cassidy bill marked the fourth Obamacare repeal bill failure since the summer began. But Republicans say they’re not going to stop, and Murkowski’s decision not to oppose the bill provided a small victory in an otherwise painful defeat.

“Today to me, it’s not a matter of if, it’s now when,” Graham said of repealing the Affordable Care Act. “Because this idea makes sense. Let’s say we fail. Let’s say we continue to fail. You’ve seen the damage done to the party, donors, people upset. The good news is I see enthusiasm for the first time among Republicans about an alternative to Obamacare.”

Graham’s positive spin comes just two weeks after he and Sen. Bill Cassidy had to publicly plead with President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to get on board with a last-gasp Obamacare bill. They then went on a legislative binge, running around Washington to lobby the White House senators and conservative groups to at least not kill their effort.

The Graham-Cassidy push was aided by “the fact this wasn’t a leadership exercise,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP senator.

At one point, the bill seemed to have a real chance of success. And then it ran into the same hurdles that killed every other GOP health plan. Ultimately, a number of Senate Republicans remain wary of transforming the U.S. health system in such a haphazard process — especially with plans to make deep cuts to Medicaid and roll back protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

And yet the sudden spurt of momentum behind Graham-Cassidy, once considered a long shot, underscores how nervous Republicans are about facing voters in 2018 without fulfilling their top campaign promise or having much of a legislative record.

What hasn’t changed is that there are three hard “nos” against Obamacare repeal: Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Susan Collins of Maine, not to mention other quietly skeptical senators.

In fact, Graham’s best friend, McCain, turned out to be more out of reach than the moderate Murkowski.

The Arizona senator left a closed-door meeting of Senate Republicans on Tuesday holding an article listing the problems his state would see if the bill became law, as he grumbled to reporters about the rushed process to write the bill.

“There was no point. Everyone knows where I am,” McCain said Tuesday in an interview. “I’ve said incessantly I want hearings, I want votes, I want input.”

Both Graham and Cassidy say they merely ran out of time. Other Republicans say the effort was thwarted by bad information — early drafts had errors or misleading information — and last-minute changes that made members uncomfortable about what they’d be voting on.

“I can’t be on CNN defending something if it’s in its 27th iteration when I think it’s the third iteration. That’s not the way I do business,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “I don’t even know what the last version looked like.”

Graham told his Republican colleagues in the closed-door meeting Tuesday that Murkowski “likes the idea of sending the money to Alaska and getting the hell out of the way. But the process and the constant changes just made getting her vote impossible at this point,” according to a Republican senator in the room.

And so, Senate Republicans succumbed to the reality Tuesday that despite getting close to fulfilling their seven-year-old campaign pledge, they wouldn’t have time to rally the final votes before the procedural power to pass legislation with only a majority expires on Saturday.

And Murkowski’s position gives Republicans enough latitude to say that Obamacare repeal is not dead, simply on the back burner, as they focus on scoring a legislative win with tax reform.

Murkowski said Tuesday she could “get behind” the idea of block granting health care funds to the states, but she trashed a “hard deadline and lousy process.”

“The U.S. Senate cannot get the text of a bill on a Sunday night, then proceed to a vote just days later, with only one hearing – and especially not on an issue that is intensely personal to all of us,” she said in a statement.

Vice President Mike Pence told Republicans on Tuesday that they need to repeal Obamacare by the end of this Congress, GOP senators said, ensuring that the Obamacare debate will be part of the 2018 mid-term elections, just like it was in every election since 2010.

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