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Lacking support, Republicans postpone vote on health-care bill

The failure to muster a vote was at least a temporary setback for Republicans, still angling for their first major policy victory since winning control of the White House and Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell  walks onto the Senate floor following a meeting with Senate Republicans on a proposed replacement to Obamacare.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell walks onto the Senate floor following a meeting with Senate Republicans on a proposed replacement to Obamacare.Read moreAndrew Harnik / Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans pulled back Tuesday from a highly anticipated vote on their plan to overhaul the country's health-care system, stalling one of President Trump's top priorities and sending lawmakers home for a July Fourth recess empty-handed.

Hopes for a quick Senate vote to send a major bill to Trump's desk by the end of the week foundered in the face of opposition from moderate and conservative Republicans unsatisfied by the bill, unveiled late last week. By Tuesday afternoon, there were enough holdouts that Republicans, with just a slim Senate majority, had no path to advance the measure in its current form.

"We're still working toward getting at least 50 people in a comfortable place," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) told reporters after a lunch meeting in which GOP senators were joined by Vice President Pence, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer. "It's a big, complicated subject; we've got a lot of discussions going on and we're still optimistic we're going to get there."

Plans for a rapid victory dimmed Monday when a Congressional Budget Office analysis estimated that the Senate plan would leave 22 million more people uninsured over the next decade, and increase health-care costs for many even as it reduced the federal deficit, rolled back mandates, and cut taxes for the wealthy. Five GOP senators had openly expressed opposition or reservations about the bill — with McConnell only able to afford two defections — and after the announcement more said they were also holding out.

The failure to muster a vote was at least a temporary setback for Republicans still angling for their first major policy victory since winning control of the White House and Congress, and after pledging for seven years to roll back the Affordable Care Act.

But Republicans and Democrats both said the long-running battle to replace Obamacare wasn't over.

Trump, hoping to perhaps enhance his claims to be the ultimate deal-maker, summoned Republican senators to the White House for a 4 p.m. meeting, and GOP leaders were expected to seek changes in the coming days that might win new supporters and revive the measure's chances. Based on budgetary rules being used to move the bill, Republicans could use $188 billion of their projected savings to make modifications that might pull enough senators on board.

"We have really no choice but to solve this situation. Obamacare is a total disaster," Trump told lawmakers at the start of their meeting, though he later added, "If we don't get it done, it's just going to be something that we're not going to like and that's OK."

McConnell, after the meeting, said it might take weeks before a new bill could be brought up for a vote but added that "everybody around the table is interested in getting to 'yes,' interested in getting an outcome," even if it takes longer than hoped.

Democrats who have rallied supporters against the bill urged vigilance.

"Today, I'm sorry, it's not a good day. They're buying themselves more time," Sen. Cory A. Booker (D., N.J.) said on a call with reporters. He urged Democrats and their allies to rally over the holiday recess scheduled for next week. "This now is our time to figure out what we are going to do."

Looming in the recent memory was the House push to repeal the law. When plans for a vote on it collapsed in March, Speaker Paul Ryan conceded that Obamacare would remain in force. Weeks later, with some more wrangling and a deal with conservatives brokered by Rep. Tom MacArthur of New Jersey, the House narrowly approved a modified proposal.

Tuesday's decision to forgo a vote "is a momentary pause, but I worry that some of us might think that the battle is over," said Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.). "And it's far from over."

The added time, though, has a downside for Republicans, who had hoped to finish their work on health care and then pivot to tax reform. Wavering senators now must head home, possibly to face energized protesters who will have more time to rally against the bill and confront them. The Senate bill is based on a House plan that has polled terribly.

Even as senators returned from the White House on Tuesday afternoon, dozens of protesters at the Capitol chanted at them: "Shame! Shame! Shame!"

Once they return to Washington next month, senators will have three weeks of scheduled sessions before Congress breaks for all of August.

The extent of the Republicans' challenge became clear as the day went on.

After McConnell announced the vote was off, Republicans from across the political spectrum said they would have opposed the bill as drafted. Conservative Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas tweeted that it "missed the mark for Kansans and therefore did not have my support."

Ohio's Rob Portman and West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito both said they also would have opposed the bill, in large part because of its cuts to Medicaid. Both of their states, like Pennsylvania and New Jersey, have expanded Medicaid under the health law, helping hundreds of thousands obtain health insurance.

They joined five others who had already expressed reservations about a vote this week, though most left the door open to supporting the measure with some changes.

The problem for McConnell is that many want changes that pull in opposite directions. Moderate Republicans objected to Medicaid cuts and some opposed plans to pull funding from Planned Parenthood. Conservatives believe the bill doesn't cut spending fast enough, and want more regulations and taxes rolled back. They received backing early Tuesday from the Club for Growth, which fights for lower taxes and less spending.

"Only in Washington does repeal translate to restore. Because that's exactly what the Senate GOP health-care bill does: It restores Obamacare," said a statement from the group's president, David McIntosh.

Hours later, the vote was off.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), who helped write the plan, said in a statement that the Senate proposal was not perfect "but it is a positive step toward repairing the damages caused by Obamacare and putting Medicaid on a sustainable fiscal path."

As the debate continued, the president of Philadelphia-based Independence Blue Cross released a statement largely praising the Senate bill, saying it would stabilize insurance markets, moderate premium increases, and boost competition. But he also called for "additional dialogue" about changes to Medicaid.

Republicans argue that the existing law has spiked health-care costs and diminished choices, forcing them to push for changes.

Democrats have cast the GOP plan as a giveaway to the rich, many of whom would receive tax cuts, while regulations meant to protect consumers would be rolled back, part of a series of changes that the CBO estimated would hit older and poorer people the hardest.