Mitch McConnell is just a few weeks from achieving what will be the high point of his political career when he becomes the majority leader of the U.S. Senate. And to celebrate this momentous personal achievement that represents the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition, the first thing McConnell plans to do is schedule a meaningless vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Talking to Roll Call’s Niels Lesniewski, McConnell sketched out his vision for how the Senate will operate under his watch. There’s a lot of talk about bipartisanship and opening up the rules process to give the minority more of a say. He used the phrase “right of center” and said various other things that set DC insiders’ hearts aflutter. And he arguably took a veiled shot at the ideological warriors in his own caucus like Sen. Ted Cruz, saying “there is sort of two kinds of people in politics: those that want to make a point and those that want to make a difference.”
But for all the happy talk and promises to end gridlock, McConnell also made clear that one of his first agenda items, if not the first, will be a vote to repeal the ACA:
“Number one: We certainly will have a vote on proceeding to a bill to repeal Obamacare. … It was a very large issue in the campaign,” McConnell said, reaffirming a commitment to see what can be done against it, also discussing plans to roll back parts of the health care law that have proved to be particularly unpopular.
That’s not entirely unexpected, but it’s still an interesting remark for a few reasons. First, as Danny Vinik points out, “Obamacare was a much smaller issue than anyone expected it to be, precisely because the law is largely working as intended.” In McConnell’s own campaign, he had to lie indiscriminately when asked what would happen to the healthcare system in Kentucky post-repeal, given that the state is and was benefitting so handsomely from Obamacare (second largest drop in the statewide uninsurance rate, according to Gallup).
Secondly, this wasn’t the first time McConnell had been asked post-election if an Obamacare repeal was in the works, and in previous interviews he’d been circumspect on the matter. Last Thursday, Fox News’ Greta van Susteren asked him whether the repeal vote was coming, and McConnell said: “We may have that vote. I don't think that there are six Democrats who are going to join 54 Republicans and pass it. That's just a prediction of the outcome.”
That’s a fairly straightforward assessment of the political dynamic – any repeal legislation will have to clear the 60 vote threshold to overcome a filibuster, and McConnell’s not likely to wring the votes he would need out of the Democratic minority. Now he says that this vote will “certainly” happen. Nothing has changed in the last five days to make it any more probable that six Democrats will sign on to repeal, so the pessimism he felt last week should be no less acute.
In fact, the combination of a Democratic filibuster and President Obama’s veto pen are such an obvious impediment to the Republican repeal dream that McConnell said flat-out that the only real hope for killing Obamacare outright rests with the Supreme Court, which recently agreed to hear arguments in King v. Burwell. “The chances of [Obama] signing a full repeal are pretty limited,” McConnell told the Wall Street Journal last week. “Who may ultimately take it down is the Supreme Court of the United States. I mean there’s a very significant case that will be decided before June.” He actually seems to be counting on the Supreme Court to do the dirty work for him, telling the Wall Street Journal that a favorable ruling (for conservatives) would allow for “a major do-over of the whole thing — that opportunity presented to us by the Supreme Court, as opposed to actually getting the president to sign a full repeal, which is not likely to happen.”
So McConnell, who’s spent the last couple of weeks intimating that a Senate repeal vote would be a waste of time and that the issue is better left to the high court, now says a vote to repeal Obamacare will absolutely happen. What explains the shift? It could be that Republican leaders are sensitive to criticisms coming from conservatives that they’re capitulating to the White House on immigration, and they want to throw the right a bone on healthcare to make some amends.
Whatever the reason, McConnell is promising a repeal vote even though he’s fully aware what the outcome will be, which means that he’s doing it just to make a statement of opposition to the ACA. And remember what he told Roll Call: “There is sort of two kinds of people in politics: those that want to make a point and those that want to make a difference.” McConnell might want to amend that a bit, given that he’s acknowledged that he can’t make the difference he wants on Obamacare, and so he’ll make a point instead.