WASHINGTON (AP) — John McCain will make a dramatic return to the Senate for a make-or-break vote on Republican health care legislation Tuesday just days after getting diagnosed with brain cancer, giving an emotional and arithmetical boost to his party’s reeling effort to repeal Obamacare.
The decision by the 80-year-old senator to travel to Washington from his Arizona home was announced by his office in a brief press release late Monday night. It comes with the GOP bill to erase and replace President Barack Obama’s law on the brink as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushes toward a pivotal vote Tuesday, prodded by an impatient and frustrated President Donald Trump.
“Senator McCain looks forward to returning to the United States Senate tomorrow to continue working on important legislation, including health care reform, the National Defense Authorization Act, and new sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea,” his office said.
It was the latest head-spinning turn for legislation that’s survived several near-death experiences in recent week. Now, it seems it could clear a critical hurdle Tuesday, a vote on beginning debate on a measure Republicans hope will let them deliver on seven years of promises tear down Obama’s statute.
McCain’s startling decision to return suggests McConnell believes Tuesday’s vote will be successful — with McCain’s vote.
McConnell, R-Ky., said he’s “made a commitment to the people I represent” to undo Obama’s health care overhaul, in what seemed a pointed reminder to Republican senators that they’ve made the same vow.
At the White House, Trump lambasted Democrats who helped enact the 2010 health care law and uniformly oppose the GOP attempt to scrap and rewrite it.
“They run out and say, ‘Death, death, death,'” Trump said, with a backdrop of families that he said have encountered problems getting affordable, reliable medical coverage because of Obama’s statute. “Well, Obamacare is death. That’s the one that’s death.”
Some Democrats have said the GOP repeal effort would lead to death for patients who lose coverage. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said various versions of the legislation would mean more than 20 million Americans would become uninsured by 2026.
But Trump focused many of his remarks on GOP senators. McConnell is nursing a slim 52-48 majority, making McCain’s return crucial. McConnell could lose only two Republicans with McCain present and just one if he’s not.
“For Senate Republicans, this is their chance to keep their promise. Over and over again, they said, ‘Repeal and replace, repeal and replace.’ But they can now keep their promise,” Trump said.
At least a dozen Republican senators have publicly opposed or criticized the legislation, more than enough to kill it. That’s forced McConnell to step back twice from anticipated votes and to revise his bill in hopes of mollifying unhappy moderates and conservatives.
Moderate Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, remained opposed to beginning debate on any option McConnell has revealed so far, and other Republicans remained uncommitted. But senators and aides said talks were underway on issues including potentially giving states more leeway on using federal funds to help people losing Medicaid coverage.
“I think we’re going to proceed to debate,” Cornyn said. About McCain, Cornyn said, “It would help if he’s here.”
McConnell’s measure would uproot much of Obama’s law, eliminating its tax penalties on people not buying policies, cutting the Medicaid health care program for the poor and providing less generous health care subsidies for consumers.
Complicating McConnell’s task, Ohio GOP Gov. John Kasich said it would be a mistake for the Senate to move ahead Tuesday “and force a one-sided deal that the American people are clearly against.” Kasich’s stance could make it harder for wavering Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who’s criticized the measure’s Medicaid cuts, to back the legislation.
Yet Portman and other undeclared Republican senators were also being pounded by the White House.
“Republicans have a last chance to do the right thing on Repeal & Replace after years of talking & campaigning on it,” Trump tweeted earlier Monday.
Trump’s contentious tone toward his own party underscored the high stakes as he tries avoiding the specter of Republicans sinking one of his top priorities.
Late in the day, Trump used an appearance at the National Scout Jamboree in West Virginia to joke about firing his health secretary, Tom Price. Saying that Price “better get” the votes to begin debate on the legislation, the president said, “Otherwise, I’ll say: Tom, you’re fired.” He also told the crowd it “better get” West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Caputo, who has expressed reservations about the GOP bill, to vote for it.
In comments highlighting GOP tensions, Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, said it is “absolutely repugnant” that Republican senators aren’t following through on campaign promises to repeal Obama’s law.
Without naming them, he mentioned “female senators from the Northeast” and said, “If it was a guy from South Texas, I might ask him to step outside and settle this Aaron Burr style,” a reference to the firearms duel in which Burr killed Alexander Hamilton. In a later statement, he said the remark was “tongue in cheek.”
Collins has opposed the GOP replacement plan. Other Republicans expressing reservations include Capito and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Farenthold spoke Friday on 1440 KEYS radio’s “The Bob Jones Show” in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Associated Press writers Erica Werner and Andrew Taylor in Washington, Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, and Julie Bykowicz in Glen Jean, West Virginia, contributed to this report.