The Senate Vote: A Turning Point?

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U.S. Capitol. Courtesy Architect of the Capitol.

The scene in the U.S. Senate chamber was highly unusual at 1:30 a.m. Friday, July 28, as senators gathered to vote on the “skinny bill” — an eight-page proposal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. For one thing, the full Senate of 100 members was there. For another, the senators sat at their assigned desks instead of rambling in and out.

Almost all the members actually called out their yea or nay vote (there is no electronic voting in the Senate) during an alphabetical roll call. In 10 years as a congressional journalist, the only times I’d seen that happen were Christmas Eve 2009, when the Senate passed the Affordable Care Act, and June 26, 2013, when the Senate passed an immigration-reform bill that the Republican-dominated House refused to consider.

This time, again, the press gallery was full of credentialed print reporters. (No cameras or electronic recording devises are allowed; only C-SPAN can cover the chamber.) But this time, the reporters were mostly silent, clutching the long Senate gallery tally sheets that they marked by hand as each senator voted.

Also unusual was that no veteran congressional reporter was confidently telling others how the vote would go. No one knew. The tension built as the tallies for the red and blue sides rose evenly into the high 40s. Then, Sen. John McCain of Arizona reentered the chamber.

He had been there earlier, sitting at his desk. This wasn’t typical either; McCain is the senator who crosses the aisle the most to talk to Democratic senators. This time, perhaps in deference to his fighting a recently discovered brain tumor, his colleagues came to him, standing around his desk in bunches. At one point, he exited to the lobby with Senate leaders. Were they having him talk to the president by phone, the press wondered?

When McCain reentered about 1:30 a.m. Friday morning, he did not stop at his desk. He went to the Senate well and stood dramatically in front of the clerk with his right hand spread out for a few seconds. Then, like a Roman emperor deciding the fate of a gladiator, he rolled his hand around his thumb pointing down. It was the traditional Senate vote for nay. The bill was dead.

There were gasps. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate minority leader, jumped up to wave down the applause starting among the Democratic members. This was no time for gloating. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky acknowledged the vote, and his disappointment, in his usual quiet voice (only slightly higher in tone than that of the often mumbling former leader, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada). He then ordered the session closed.

This could very well be a turning point in the rancorously partisan political environment on the Hill. It came after a poignant speech on Wednesday, July 26, by the much-respected Arizona senator, just two days after he returned from surgery, in which he urged his colleagues to return to the old ways of the Senate, to “regular order.”

Regular order meant that bills only came to the floor after having gone through a long process of committee hearings and votes. (The skinny bill, in contrast, was printed out at midnight that night.) In the past as today, senators would strongly voice opposing opinions on the floor, but they did so civilly, showing obvious respect to their colleagues on the other side of the aisle, even deep friendship.

Was this vote a possible sign of a turning point?

It also may have signaled a change in the Senate’s overall relationship with the president. Although it was not the first time the Senate had defied a president who strongly favored a bill (the comprehensive immigration-reform bill of 2007, pushed by President George W. Bush and Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, was defeated twice, for example), this seemed to send a message to President Donald Trump that the Senate was willing to stand up for the separation of powers.

It also followed a speech by Schumer on Monday, July 24, in which he announced that the party would now focus on policies to help the middle class, turning away from the strategy of “resisting” President Trump every moment.

This may already be having an effect on the party downstream. Earlier Thursday evening, July 27, at the Woman’s National Democratic Club near Dupont Circle, not only was the “Summer of Resistance” end-of-the-year barbecue rained on, but the featured speaker, MoveOn.org’s Washington Director Ben Wikler, never appeared. “He was caught up on the Hill,” said one club member. Others remarked that with Schumer’s call for comity, it was unclear how the focus on resistance itself was going to move on.

Instead, at the WNDC, three Democratic women candidates for state and national office spoke of their campaigns’ need for resources. “There is a strong surge of women going to run for public office,” said Thereasa Black of Maryland’s 4th Congressional District, who had taken her bar exam the day before. She named more than a dozen Democratic groups being organized to help candidates like her.

Dr. Kyle Horton, an internist running in North Carolina’s 7th Congressional District, plans to fight for jobs “from the middle class out, not just the top down.” “Bridging the gap” is Phyllis Hatcher’s theme. Having stepped down as pastor of her Milledgeville church to run for Georgia State Senate, Hatcher wants government to partner with citizens to help children “get into adulthood.”

For a change, President Trump was not the focus.

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