Shortly before noon, reporters caught Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson on the Senate subway platform and informed him of “skinny repeal,” the last-ditch option leaders were using to entice Republican senators to support the motion to proceed on health care reform. Skinny repeal, which will come up during the amendment process if/when all other repeal or repeal-and-replace bills fail, would repeal Obamacare’s individual and employer mandates and medical device tax, while leaving the rest in place.
“That would be rather unsatisfying from my standpoint,” Johnson said.
But would it be better than nothing?
Johnson was silent for a while, and then just shook his head.
“Report ‘just shook his head,’” he said.
The depth of Johnson’s indecision on the motion to proceed was underestimated by fellow colleagues, reporters—even by Mitch McConnell. A few hours later, Johnson was arguing with the majority leader on the Senate floor, right in the middle of the motion to proceed vote, about whether or not he could support it. He eventually came around, after some of the longest minutes of McConnell’s life.
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McConnell and Johnson have a poor relationship. Johnson is reportedly still fuming at McConnell for abandoning his reelection contest last fall as a lost cause. Johnson, who was not expected to raise as much of a fuss during the repeal debate as he has, threatened several revisions of the bill over the last few months, and is freewheeling in his criticism of McConnell. He appears to have decided to spend his second term trolling McConnell.
It was assumed, once leaders dangled “skinny repeal” as a vehicle for punting the process into a House-Senate conference committee and several holdouts came onboard, that McConnell would have the votes when he got to the floor. McConnell may have thought that too. Instead, he had about 49 and one-half.
Once protesters were removed from the chamber—though their chants of “kill the bill!” could be heard from outside throughout the vote—the vote began. The Health and Human Service Secretary, Tom Price, was watching from the back; Vice President Mike Pence, who had his script in the event of a tie typed out in large font before him, presided.
None of the Democrats voted until all of the Republicans had finished. Maine Sen. Susan Collins voted “no,” but West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito—who kept her secrecy until shortly before the vote—voted “yes.” Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, and all of the other undecideds signed off on the motion; Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski did not. That made two defections, the maximum McConnell could sustain. After the first roll call, Republicans were stuck on 46 ayes; eventually Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan rolled in and brought it to 48.
And then there was a long, long wait. Where were Ron Johnson and John McCain?
Reporters are not allowed to bring their phones or computers into the Senate gallery, and are left to read expressions instead of tweets. McConnell and majority whip John Cornyn began to talk to each other as the vote lingered. The mood loosened as it was clear no one was going anywhere. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul walked over to Capito and rubbed her shoulder after she’d cast a tough vote. Heller and Flake, the two most endangered Senate Republicans in 2018, struck up a conversation. Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who are both quite old, appeared on the verge of dozing off.
Rumors abounded about Johnson’s whereabouts. One reporter came into the gallery and said that he had just talked to Johnson at the subway—the one leaving the Capitol. Was Johnson fleeing the scene?
Johnson appeared at last and made a beeline to McConnell, who smiled upon seeing him. Within about ten seconds, McConnell was no longer smiling. I cannot be certain, but the only words I believe I made out from McConnell’s mouth were “you’re kidding me,” near the beginning of their chat. For ten or so minutes, McConnell and Johnson spoke to each other with Cornyn drifting in and out. It seemed that McConnell was trying to explain something to Johnson, who wasn’t quite getting it, and vice versa.
Their conversation came to an end when McCain arrived to a standing ovation. McCain came through, greeted Republican leaders, hugged Schumer, and voted yes. Right afterwards, Johnson voted yes, too, and the motion had 50 votes.
After the vote, Johnson tried to make it sound as if he and McConnell were just having some benign conversation while they waited for McCain.
“I was just talking about how I wanted to continue to be a positive influence on getting as good a result as possible as we move forward with this,” he told reporters.
Cornyn’s recollection of the floor conversation did not quite align with Johnson’s. “Well, Senator Johnson, like others, has had some objections to the process, which is admittedly cumbersome, because [we’ve had] no Democratic cooperation [and] you have to do it under the budget reconciliation rules, so it’s frustrating for everybody,” Cornyn told reporters. “I think he was just expressing some of his frustration.” When a reporter asked Cornyn whether he had been worried that Johnson would vote no, he didn’t give a direct answer. “Um, well, like I said, we knew we had no margin for error.”
I asked Johnson if he had already made up his mind to vote “yes” before he came to the floor, since, according to him, he and McConnell were just talking about how to be productive going forward. He was silent for a while, and then cracked a smile.
“You always have your options,” he said.
When another reporter asked him what, then, pushed him into the “yes” column, he conceded that McCain’s appearance had an effect. He had no idea when McCain would show up. But after McCain voted yes, Johnson knew he was the last person standing. “You know, that would have been a pretty tough ‘no’ vote,” he said. “So I was happy to join Senator McCain.”
If Johnson really does want to just stick it to McConnell in the end, he will have further opportunities, especially on the “skinny repeal” amendment a couple of days down the road. But if he couldn’t get himself pumped enough to do it today, it’s doubtful he’ll be brave enough tomorrow.