MONTPELIER — Vermont Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders are lashing out after the Senate voted Tuesday to begin debating a health care plan that would repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act and leave tens of millions of Americans without health insurance.
Both Leahy, a Democrat, and Sanders, an independent, voted Tuesday afternoon against a motion to proceed to debate on a House-passed health care bill. The vote was held Tuesday before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., revealed the legislative language that senators will be debating, however.
The process used by the Republican majority and the secretive nature of the Senate GOP’s plan have drawn the ire of Vermont’s two senators. They have also been outspoken about the impact of repealing the ACA, citing the Congressional Budget Office’s estimation that at least 22 million Americans would lose their health care coverage under all of the plans pushed by Republicans in the House and Senate.
“This was a lockstep vote for Trumpcare, produced through a secretive and shoddy process. These decisions mean health or illness and life or death to countless Americans. And let’s be clear: Republican senators have no idea what they voted for with this motion to proceed,” Leahy said in a statement after casting his vote against the motion. “Millions upon millions of Americans’ health is at stake. This cynical vote is intended to lead to a final Trumpcare plan to kick millions of Americans off their insurance.”
Leahy said the GOP health care plan “is a tax plan disguised as a health plan” that will “slash hundreds of billions from the Medicaid help that is vital to millions of Americans.”
“We can improve health care, but not like this,” he said.
Sanders, speaking at a news conference outside the Capitol alongside Democrats after the vote, repeated his assertion that what the GOP is seeking “is the most dangerous and destructive piece of legislation ever to be discussed on the floor of the Senate in the modern history of our country.”
“Do not kid yourself, when you throw 22 million Americans off the health care they have — people with cancer, people with diabetes, people with heart disease — thousand of those people will die,” Sanders said. “This is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. Our job is to make sure all Americans have health care, not throw 22 million people off the health care they have.”
Sanders said people across the country must continue to speak out as Democrats and independents in the Senate try to prevent the GOP from passing a repeal of the ACA.
“We’ll do our job here, but we need millions of Americans from coast to coast to stand up and tell the Republicans, ‘This is America, we are not going to pass legislation that allows thousand to die,’” Sanders said.
The vote on the motion to proceed, which will allow the Senate to debate legislation to repeal and possibly replace parts of the landmark health care law implemented under former Democratic President Barack Obama, passed on a 51-50 tally after Vice President Mike Pence cast a tie-breaking vote. Passage came after several Republican senators previously opposed to the motion flipped their positions and voted to begin the debate.
Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska were the only Republicans to oppose the motion.
The vote Tuesday is a victory for President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., but it could be short-lived. McConnell now faces the difficult task of presenting legislation to repeal, or repeal and replace, parts of the Affordable Care Act that can win support from both moderate and conservative Republicans. That balance is what caused previous delays in bringing legislation to the Senate floor.
Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, who returned to the Senate Tuesday after undergoing surgery and a brain cancer diagnosis to cast a key vote in favor of the motion, underscored just how difficult it will be for McConnell to strike the right balance.
McCain, in a floor speech following the vote, said Republican leaders must make changes to previous iterations of the Senate’s health care bill to secure his vote.
“I will not vote for this bill as it is today. It’s a shell of a bill right now. We all know that,” he said.
Criticizing the process in addition to the substance of the GOP plans, McCain urged GOP leaders to allow Senate committees to hold hearings, take testimony and seek “contributions from both sides” of the aisle.
“Why don’t we try the old ways of legislating in the Senate?” he said. “Let’s return to regular order.”
Leahy, the most senior member of the Senate, similarly urged GOP leaders to allow for a more traditional legislative process.
“We need bipartisanship and regular order, not rash and disastrous legislation like this,” he said.
Tuesday’s vote paves the way for the Senate to consider its own health care bill this week. Senators will be able to offer amendments, but McConnell is expected to offer a final amendment that will be the legislation the Senate ultimately votes on.