Behind the Scenes of Last Night’s Health Care Vote
Last night was an historic moment in the U.S. Senate. One that wouldn’t have been possible without so many of your calls, emails, protests and dogged determination. Like I do sometimes, I sat down last night at 2:30 am to write down what really happened, and take you behind the scenes of the health care debate.
Some days, over the last few months, I wished I wasn’t so emotionally invested in this fight. My moods see-sawed, the knots in my stomach came and went, my nerves frayed. Health care, whether I like it or not, is at the foundation of my public service. I arrived in Hartford, as a 25-year-old naïve state legislator who believed in universal health care. I rose to become the 29-year-old Chairman of the legislature’s Health Committee. I served on the committee in the U.S. House that wrote the Affordable Care Act. I defended it back home in endless town halls. I got elected to the Senate, and when no one wanted to stand up for the ACA in its early days, I took up the cause, going to the Senate floor nearly every week to extol its virtues.
It’s my passion because I have seen what the lack of health care means to people in my state, in my town, and in my neighborhood. I see the pain in a mother’s eyes when she can’t afford glasses for her daughter who can’t see. I listen to the anguish of families that go bankrupt because their insurance won’t cover their son’s cancer. I listen to doctors who are feeling overwhelmed by a system that rewards the volume, not the quality, of medicine practiced.
I’ve lived every high and every low of this debate, because it matters so much to the people I serve, and because it’s been the focus of so much of my career. And so yesterday — it should come as no surprise — was one of the most emotionally taxing days in my twenty years in public service. And I want to tell you about it.
Getting Ready for a Long Battle
I arrive in the office and have a few minutes to check in with my health care team before my first meeting. Today is clearly going to be big — the Republicans are intent on bringing their mystery “skinny” health care repeal amendment to the floor for a vote. Their plan is to pass a scaled-down version of their repeal bill to use as a vehicle to get to a conference committee where they can write the actual bill with the House of Representatives. That way, if the whole repeal enterprise fails, they can share the blame with the House.
My team is busy drafting amendments that we can offer to the bill. I have been one of the chief agitators in our caucus for a very robust amendment process on the floor once the Republicans offer their plan. I feel like we need to go down fighting, and that by offering hundreds of amendments, we might actually improve the bill if one or two passes, or at the very least, make clear the differences between the two parties on critical health care questions people care about.
Some other Democratic Senators disagree with this strategy — especially because it could entail the Senate staying in session and voting for hours upon hours — and their staff are beginning to call my staff to pressure us to back off. I quickly gather my senior staff in my office and tell them, “It’s going to be a long day.”
The Democratic Leader, Chuck Schumer, is an unapologetic optimist by nature. But he doesn’t sound confident as he kicks off our lunch meeting. He makes some cryptic comments about his conversations with John McCain, but he says that we need to assume that the Republicans will line up the votes on their “skinny” bill. I eat lunch next to Senator Cory Booker, my close friend and main co-conspirator on the lengthy amendment strategy. He doesn’t look well. “I’m sick as a dog, man. I just got back from the doctor,” he says to me. “Cory, I need you today. We need you.” “I know,” he says. “I’m napping every chance I get so I can be there for the long haul tonight.”
Near the end of the meeting, Bernie Sanders stands up and endorses the robust amendment idea. Schumer catches my eye and gives me a wink, acknowledging that Bernie will be a powerful ally if a fight breaks out within our caucus over late-night strategy. As the meeting winds down, I rush off to a quiet office in the Capitol to tape a segment for the popular “Pod Save America” podcast — I provide a short update on what will likely play out on the floor during the evening.
The Drama Begins
In the early evening, we come to the floor for a series of votes, and we begin to hear the details of what will be in the “skinny” repeal bill. It’s a disaster. A full repeal of the individual mandate, resulting in 16 million losing coverage because of resulting rate spikes, and a full defunding of Planned Parenthood. At 5:30 pm, three Republicans, including John McCain, hold a hastily arranged press conference to announce that they will not vote for the skinny bill unless they get assurances from the House that the bill will not become law. They want a guarantee that there will actually be a conference committee. I type out a tweet, “Seriously, this is weapons grade bonkers. 3 Senators just announced they will vote for repeal only if assured it will never become law.” By the end of the day, that tweet will have been viewed 1 million times.
Now that the outline of the skinny bill is known, Schumer calls us in for an emergency caucus meeting. He wants to decide what our strategy is if their bill succeeds. Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders and I make the case for the long amendment process. I explain that we cannot expect the American people to fight against this reckless law if we don’t fight inside the Senate. My colleagues have heard me give this speech a half dozen times. I’m worried I sound like a broken record. But I believe what I’m saying, and it seems like our side is winning most of the room.
Suddenly, one of Schumer’s aides rushes up to him to show him something on his iPhone. Schumer then reads to us Speaker Ryan’s statement in which he gives only a half-assurance that the House will move to a conference committee if the Senate passes the skinny bill. Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, another of my closest friends in the Senate, jumps up and declares that a bunch of us need to go to the Senate floor immediately and make it clear that Ryan is not going to grant a conference — that the House is likely to simply pass the Senate bill. A group of us leave the meeting and rush to the floor. I give a speech about the bill and how it essentially amounts to health care arson, lighting our entire system on fire. I also talk about the process and how far we’ve strayed from how the Senate, supposedly the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” should operate. I end by saying that this isn’t why we all came here. No one gets elected to the Senate to vote for a bill they hope won’t become law because it’s such a humanitarian catastrophe. But that’s exactly what seems to be happening right now.
The Home Stretch
At around 10:00 pm, McConnell finally formally introduces the skinny bill, and schedules the vote on it in two hours. Senator Patty Murray, who is managing the floor debate for Democrats, comes over to me and asks if I will kick off the Democrats’ argument against the bill. It’s a real nice honor, and I wonder if I got the nod because Patty, a strong ally of mine in the Senate, remembers all those days in 2013 and 2014 when I was the lonely senator on the floor defending the Affordable Care Act. As I rise to speak, I look around and realize that most all of my colleagues are present and in their seats. It’s actually rare to speak to a Senate chamber full of senators, and it gives me instant butterflies. I just decide to go for it — pull no punches. I call the process “an embarrassment”. I call the bill “health care system arson”. I leave it all on the floor, and I feel good about it.
Social media is such a key organizing and communication tool, and I’ve made a major commitment to use it as a way to make the legislative process as transparent as possible. As soon as my speech is done, I run across the street to hold a Facebook Live session with my followers. Thousands of people instantly tune in — by the end of the night, 40,000 people have seen part of the livestream. I give an update on the debate, answer a few questions, and then head back to the Capitol.
On my way, I stop at the rally that is ongoing outside the Senate. It’s now 11:00 pm, and the crowd is still over a hundred. I tell them that our chances don’t seem great tonight, but they need to keep up the fight.
The Final Vote
I meet again with my staff to go over amendments. All the Senators who attended the 5:30 pm press conference are now leaning yes on the bill, except for McCain, who hasn’t said much lately. But we all expect that McCain will be strong-armed like the rest, and so we need to have our amendments ready. Senator Merkley and I huddle to talk about strategy. We’re ready for the long haul.
At 11:55 pm, I rush over to the Russell Senate Office Building for a quick appearance on MSNBC. I only make it in time for about 30 seconds of air time with Brian Williams before his show ends. My shortest cable appearance of my Senate career. I get in the elevator to head down to the basement to walk back through the underground tunnel to the Capitol. My elevator reaches the basement at the same time as the other elevator in the bank.
Off that elevator steps my friend Senator John McCain. It’s exactly midnight.
“Murph!” he yells, and swats me on the back. Someday, I’ll get to tell my grandkids what he said next. We didn’t talk long — he shot off like an arrow with his coterie of staff. But I will remember the moment for the rest of my life, a reminder of why there is no one else in politics, and there will never ever again be anyone in politics, like John McCain. The original Maverick. A man with a sense of dignity and purpose that is all too rare nowadays in public life.
I walk onto the Senate floor just behind John. He goes over to Senator Schumer and they talk briefly. John then finds the Assistant Republican leader John Cornyn, and they have a short, tense conversation. McCain then goes to his seat. And sits.
I text my wife. “Turn on C-SPAN. Something is about to happen you need to see.”
McCain sits alone for a while, and then the visits begin. First, it’s his Arizona colleague Jeff Flake. Then Vice President Pence enters the chamber and approaches McCain. I stand on the other side of the floor with Patty Murray, just watching. All the while, as various figures come to try to persuade McCain, he is flanked by his best friend, Lindsay Graham, and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, one of the two firm “no” votes on the bill (for all the focus on McCain’s heroic vote, it is Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, who were iconoclastic “no” votes all along, who will go down as the original heroes).
Time seems to stand still. And finally, the vote is called. The clerk slowly runs through the roll. Collins and Murkowski vote no. When McCain’s name is called, he isn’t in the chamber. The suspense builds. Then he enters the chamber again, walks to the clerk’s desk, puts up his hand to be recognized, and gives the thumbs down sign. A loud, audible gasp erupts from the floor and the gallery. Schumer, from his seat up front, shushes everyone urgently.
The last few votes trickle in, and the presiding officer, Senator David Perdue from Georgia, announces the vote. 49 Yes. 51 No. The amendment fails. McConnell promptly rises and pulls the bill from consideration.
McConnell gives a speech. Schumer gives a speech (which is excellent — watch it if you can). And we adjourn. Perdue comes down from the dais and walks over to me. “You ready to work together, Chris?” he asks. “You bet,” I say.
I walk back out to the rally and thank the crowd for sticking with us. Everyone is exuberant, and they should be. “Reports of democracy’s death were greatly exaggerated, huh?” I tell them, borrowing a line from my favorite Connecticut satirist Mark Twain.
I walk back to the office with David Bonine, my legislative director, and Joe Dunn, my longtime health staffer. It’s 2:00 am.
There are so many days when you wonder whether a career in public service is worth it. All the frustration, the personal attacks, the gridlock — it often makes you wonder whether there’s a better way to spend your life.
And then a day comes like today. A day when out of darkness, something truly amazing happens. It’s days like that, all too few and far between, that keep you coming back, to try and try and try again.