Three Republican senators on Thursday threatened to hold up health legislation in the Senate unless they got assurances from Speaker Paul Ryan that the House would negotiate a more comprehensive replacement to "Obamacare" and not vote to make the Senate bill law.
Ryan responded that "the House is willing" to convene a conference committee with the Senate to that end. But it was unclear whether the speaker's response would satisfy the senators' demands, leaving health legislation in limbo once again at a crucial moment.
The convoluted developments played out as a divided Senate debated legislation to repeal and replace Democrat Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. With Democrats unanimously opposed, the slender GOP majority was divided among itself over what it could agree to.
After a comprehensive bill failed on the Senate floor, and a straight-up repeal failed too, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his top lieutenants turned toward a lowest-common-denominator solution known as "skinny repeal." It would package repeal of a few of the most unpopular pieces of the 2010 law, along with a few other measures, with the goal of getting something, anything, out of the Senate.
That would be the ticket to negotiations with the House, which passed its own legislation in May.
But that plan caused consternation among GOP senators after rumors began to surface that the House might just pass the "skinny bill," call it a day and move on to other issues like tax reform after frittering away the first six months of Donald Trump's presidency on unsuccessful efforts over health care.
Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin held a news conference to announce they would oppose the "skinny bill" unless they got a guarantee from Ryan that the House would not pass it, and instead would agree to a conference committee to negotiate a broader bill.
Graham said that the "skinny bill" as-is was a "fraud," ''disaster," ''pig in a poke" and also "half-assed," and that passing it would be "the dumbest thing in history."
Ryan responded not long after with a discursive and far from definitive statement that blamed the Senate for being unable to pass anything, but said, "if moving forward requires a conference committee, that is something the House is willing to do."
"The reality, however, is that repealing and replacing Obamacare still ultimately requires the Senate to produce 51 votes for an actual plan," he said.
There was no immediate response from Graham, McCain or Johnson.
The back-and-forth played out as the Senate prepared for a bizarre Capitol Hill ritual, a "vote-a-rama" on amendments that promised to last into the wee hours of Friday morning — at the end of which, the path ahead would perhaps be clearer.