After seven years of campaigning on repealing and replacing Obamacare, Senate Republicans' efforts to do that has gone something like this:
1. The House passed a bill, but it leaves too many lower-income, elderly and sick people without insurance for us to consider. Let's write our own bill to reform the health-insurance markets. Except: We'll have to figure out how to reconcile it with the House's later.
1b. Actually, let's write it in secret, because politics. Except: The bill and the fact we wrote it in secret upset both moderates and conservatives in our party and leave us well shy of 50 out of 52 votes.
2. Let's revise the secret bill with opinions from the rest of the Senate Republicans. Except: See above.
3. Let's repeal Obamacare and spend the next two years on a replacement. Except: That's untenable to moderates and the entire health-insurance market.
4. Let's just vote on the politically untenable House bill and then let Republicans throw a bunch of amendments at it and see what passes. We'll fix it behind closed doors with House Republicans later.
And yet, No. 4 is where we find ourselves this week.
The Senate Republicans narrowly voted to debate the House bill. They are spending the next few days in a kind of amendment free-for-all to dramatically change the bill they just voted to debate. No one knows for sure what those amendments will be. No one has had time to understand the full financial impact of these amendments. No one knows if any of these proposals will pass. And almost all of them would radically change the health-insurance markets.
In other words: Now that Republicans are finally in a position to make good on their promise to repeal Obamacare, they don't have a plan to do it. Senate Republicans are just throwing a plan at the wall to see what sticks.
This is not normal policymaking, and this is potentially a political nightmare for Republicans. They spent seven years promising to do what they can't seem to do. They are now more than six months into controlling all of Washington, and their efforts to reform health care are more secretive, messy and unpredictable than Democrats' 2010 efforts to pass Obamacare were.
There's always a chance Republicans figure something out behind closed doors with House Republicans that won't take away health care from millions or leave the health-insurance markets to implode. If they can, perhaps the drama surrounding the process will fade into the background.
“Voters have short memories for the unpleasantness around the sausage making,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant, speaking to The Fix last week, “but ultimately, Republicans and the president will be judged by what happens with the health-care system next year.”
But as the days tick by, it's less and less likely Republicans will find an answer to their central dilemma: How to take government out of people's health care without costing some people their health care.
If an answer existed, health-care experts say a bill probably would have manifested it by now. In the meantime, the messy process is souring Americans on something they thought they wanted. A Washington Post-ABC News poll finds half of Americans prefer Obamacare, compared to just 24 percent preferring Republicans' plan. A Kaiser Health poll finds 71 percent of Americans want Republicans to stop trying to repeal Obamacare and work with Democrats to make it better.
As Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) put it in a blistering speech Tuesday: “We’ve tried to do this by coming up with a proposal behind closed doors in consultation with the administration, then springing it on skeptical members, trying to convince them it’s better than nothing, asking us to swallow our doubts and force it past a unified opposition. I don’t think that is going to work in the end. And it probably shouldn’t.”
That leaves Republicans with two not-great options: Push an unpopular plan that isn't really a plan anymore. Or give up on their central campaign promise.