Tuesday afternoon I happened to watch the Senate’s vote to proceed to debate on the Republican Tax Cut for Our Financiers Bill (a/k/a Obamacare repeal and replace, just repeal or do something with Obamacare as long as we include a big tax cut for the people who don’t need it). One thing was established, some drama appeared to exist and the water got even murkier. Let’s explore.
I was among the many who thought the House repeal and replace bill was dead on arrival in the Senate. Mitch McConnell firmly established himself as a certified Master of the Senate by getting it to the debate stage. I neither agree with the bill or much of what McConnell does for that matter, but you have to give him his due for getting such a lousy bill that far.
The moment of drama and a serious constitutional question (in my mind at least) came when well into the voting no Democrats had cast their votes. For some time the vote stood at 48 to proceed and 2 opposed. Those two dissenting votes came from Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. All other Republican Senators with the exceptions of Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and John McCain of Arizona had already voted in the affirmative. McCain was a certain “aye” and Johnson had recently given every indication that he would follow suit. After some time McCain appeared on the floor to a well-deserved standing ovation, cast his vote quickly followed by Johnson. The tally stood at 50-2.
The drama then broke when the 46 Democratic and the 2 independent Senators who caucus with them all voted in the negative. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer held his people in a sincere expression of respect for McCain who is fighting cancer. At 50-50 Vice President Mike Pence, as expected, broke the tie and the way to debate was cleared.
My question remained: What if the Democrats had simply refrained from voting? A tie would not have existed yet the Ayes wouldn’t have a majority at 50-2. Since a tie did not exist could the Vice President cast the 51st vote? Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution states: “The Vice President of the United States shall be president of the Senate, but shall have no vote, unless they be equally divided.” To me, that means the Vice President can only vote in the event of a tie. Unless there is a rule I’m not aware of that forces Senators to vote the loophole exists. I’m not advocating using it. What is used in your favor today will almost certainly be used against you in the future. The Senate is dysfunctional enough without shame abstinences or absences.
If you think that was murky, let’s look at where the legislation is going from here. My guess, and it is only a guess, is that it is going nowhere; but with Master of the Senate Mitch McConnell I wouldn’t bet the farm on that. As of this writing at least one proposal has failed. This is still largely a situation of Republicans (now publically) negotiating with Republicans. With the exception of mostly destined to fail amendments the chance of getting any affirmative Democratic vote(s) is almost zero.
I still don’t see the Republicans coming to an agreement on a bill. They have divergent views on health care. Their common cause was a tax cut. From the Republican perspective this is a tax cut bill disguised as health care reform. What I fear is a legislative version of death by a thousand cuts. After a plethora of bills have failed to pass McConnell could put together something with minor changes that he could intimidate 50 into voting for because they were already on the record for with so many affirmative votes. That bill could go to conference committee where a version of the House bill with a few minor tweaks would emerge. Then McConnell would frame the compromise bill as a choice between multiple campaign promises and Obamacare. I could envision that possibly passing and Trump, desperate for a legislative win, would sign it at warp speed.
Stay tuned? Who said C-SPAN II was boring?
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