Were you expecting the Republican health care bill to go down with such a thud this week? Definitely a moment to remember. Unless, of course, you accept Donald Trump’s interesting theory that it all worked out exactly the way he wanted.
“I said from the beginning – let Obamacare implode and then do it,” the president told a group of law enforcement officers Friday. This was part of the White House celebration of “American Heroes Week,” which was highlighted by Trump’s surprise effort to discriminate against transgender volunteers in the military.
But of course he really, really wanted a bill to sign. Maybe he was too distracted by the subtle plotting against Reince Priebus to focus. Otherwise, he’s just the worst lobbyist in history.
And he underestimated two Senate Republicans, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. John McCain’s “no” vote was the high point of the drama, but Collins and Murkowski were the fierce, consistent forces of resistance that gave McCain his opportunity.
My favorite moment came when Trump dispatched Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to warn Murkowski that if she continued to vote against the bill, her home state of Alaska would lose stuff it wanted from the federal government.
Perhaps we will read about this in “The Art of the Deal: Presidential Edition.” (“If you need to win over one special vote, try to do it with threats. This is particularly effective if your target has more power than you do.”) The administration, which so far has barely managed to exercise enough clout to get a building renamed, was trying to strong-arm an influential committee chairwoman whose Senate term does not end until 2023 – a date that, many of her colleagues believe fervently, is a lot longer than they are likely to be dealing with Donald Trump.
Murkowski and Collins continued voting “no” because they believed that Trumpcare would be bad for the people in their states. Other Republican senators felt the same way but lacked the same nerve.
“They were amazing,” said Chuck Schumer, the extremely happy Senate Democratic leader.
Both women have had memorable Senate careers, but neither has always been what you’d call a profile in courage. Collins’ Maine constituents give her a lot of latitude. Murkowski, who was first appointed to her seat by her father the governor, is known for her intense devotion to all forms of oil drilling.
The Alaska Dispatch News speculated that the projects Zinke threatened to ax included “future opportunities to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” If so, cynical minds noted, he was basically warning Murkowski that if she didn’t behave, he might attempt to protect the environment.
But Collins and Murkowski care a lot about women’s issues; their joint stand was the logical outcome of a year that’s been marked by an utter Republican indifference to women. Both serve on the Senate committee that handles health care – a fact that did not appear to impress Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when he appointed 13 men to get together behind closed doors and write a health care bill.
The plan the guys came up with made no attempt to control insurance costs for maternal care. It would end the requirement that health care plans cover contraceptives. And it would bar Medicaid reimbursements for any services provided by Planned Parenthood.
It was a huge mistake for the Republican leadership to put that in there. Lisa and Susan were clear from the start – you hurt Planned Parenthood and we’re not with it,” said Patty Murray, the leading Democrat on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
The week before the health care debacle, Rep. Blake Farenthold, a very conservative and extremely strange lawmaker from Texas, told a radio interviewer he was irritated with the way the women were holding things up, adding, “If it was a guy from South Texas I might ask him to step outside and settle this Aaron Burr-style.”
It was a remarkable comment and only in part because you do not find many politicians who express a desire to be like Aaron Burr. Farenthold was actually talking about shooting the women.
Collins seemed unmoved. She mentioned the incident in a private conversation with a colleague that happened to be picked up by a politician’s greatest enemy, the hot mike. She briefly made fun of Farenthold’s very large physique and asked, “Did you see the picture of him in his pajamas next to this Playboy bunny?” She later apologized. Nobody should mock people’s physical appearance. However, to be fair, men who are planning a political career should not pose for photographs while wearing blue pajamas covered with yellow ducks.
That conversation – with Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island – was actually more important for the way it captured the growing feeling in the Senate that the president was more than just a little eccentric.
“I think – I think he’s crazy,” said Reed. To which Collins responded, “I’m worried.”
As are we all.