Murkowski bucks party with health care vote

Disability rights advocates demonstrated against the health care reform at the U.S. Senate Tuesday. (Photo by Liz Ruskin)

It was a dramatic vote in the U.S. Senate on whether to open debate on a Republican health care bill. Alaska’s two senators split their votes and both said the final outcome is uncertain.

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Protesters in the gallery shouted “Kill the bill. Don’t kill us!” and “Shame! Shame!” before they were escorted out individually. It took a while. Their chants reverberated in the chamber. Inside, the senators sat grim-faced as the roll was read.

 -Moran.

-Aye.

-Murkowski.

-No.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s answer was barely picked up by the microphone but it was heard loud and clear across the Capitol. On whether to begin to debate a bill that would repeal and replace the Accordable Care Act, she and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine were the only Republicans to vote no. That meant a 50-50 tie, which the vice president broke, keeping the bill in play.

Murkowski said this isn’t the way to pass a health care bill, with no hearings and major elements of the bill still in flux.

“Look, we need to get the work done,” Murkowski told reporters later. “But it’s more important to get the work done right, that substance matters when it comes to health care reform.”

Murkowski said she knows Republicans back home are disappointed in her. Alaska Republican Party Chairman Tuckerman Babcock wrote a letter to both senators over the weekend, reminding them that repealing the ACA was central to the Republican agenda. Conservatives on social media have been less decorous.

Murkowski said she wants health care reform, too, but she said this bill isn’t ready for debate on the Senate floor.

“At the end of the day, I’m looking at it through the lens of what do I think of, what is best for Alaskans,” Murkowski said.

Her “no” vote was somewhat overshadowed by the return of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., fresh from surgery and a diagnosis of brain cancer. He arrived long after the voting had started, to applause from both sides of the aisle. With a raw scar over his left eye, McCain said the process the bill went through was wrong. It was crafted among Republicans behind closed doors, and McCain said they tried to convince skeptical colleagues it was better than nothing.

“‘Better than nothing?'” McCain said. “Asking us to swallow our doubts and force it passed a unified opposition – I don’t think that’s going to work in the end, and probably shouldn’t.”

McCain said it was wrong when Democrats pushed the Affordable Care Act through with no Republican votes, and it’s wrong to do the same to them now.

“Hold hearings,” McCain urged. “Try to report out a bill out of committee with contributions from both sides. ”

McCain’s stance on the process was the same as Murkowski’s, but he cast the 50th vote in favor of the procedural motion. He said he wanted debate to begin and to start amending the bill.

Sen. Dan Sullivan also voted yes, and he said it’s just a starting point. He said he’s been working behind the scenes to make the Senate proposal better for Alaska. Among other things, he said he’s working with other senators on an amendment to help people who would lose Medicaid coverage, and on providing treatment for opioid addiction and mental health.

“The status quo is unacceptable,” Sullivan said, referring to the Affordable Care Act. “In beginning the process – which is bipartisan now. You’re going to see amendments on both sides, and debate on both sides – is important. It’s what I committed to and it’s why I voted that way.”

Now the Senate will log 20 hours of debate.

Technically, they voted to debate the bill the House passed, but Tuesday night, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) submitted a substitute, a version of the Better Care Reconciliation Act. Sullivan voted for it, Murkowski against. The amendment failed, with Republicans from right and center voting it down. Debate continues.

Both Alaska senators say they don’t know what the bill will look like in the end.

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Liz Ruskin covers Alaska issues in Washington as the network's D.C. correspondent. She was born in Anchorage and is a West High grad. She has degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. She previously worked at the Homer News, the Anchorage Daily News and the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She also freelanced for several years from the U.K. and Japan, in print and radio. Liz has been APRN’s Washington, D.C. correspondent since October 2013. She's @lruskin on Twitter. She welcomes your news tips at lruskin (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  | About Liz