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How Sen. Lee forced McConnell's hand on repealing Obamacare

Conservative Review

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc. (F, 51%) and Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. (F, 40%) have garnered plaudits recently for their strong stance on repealing Obamacare. 

As voters await the repeal vote they’ve long been promised, it’s worth reflecting on how Republicans have finally gotten to this point.

The answer doesn’t lie with McConnell, or with Ryan. The reason Republicans are here right now — ready to repeal Obamacare — lies with one person: Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, R-Utah (A, 100%).

It was Senator Lee who, in July of 2015, forced the repeal issue in the Senate — despite severe and unwarranted opposition from his own party’s leadership. And it is because he did so that Republicans are now poised to repeal this unwanted, unaffordable and unworkable law.

During a little-noticed floor fight over a transportation bill in the summer of 2015, Sen. Lee found a procedural loophole that would have allowed Senate Republicans to take a meaningful vote on Obamacare repeal. (By “meaningful,” I mean a vote requiring only a 51-vote majority to pass, not the 60-vote threshold more frequently employed in the Senate.) Lee entered the repeal vote, via an amendment to the transportation bill. And in doing so, he turned the Senate Republican conference on its head.

Despite campaigning on the pledge to repeal Obamacare “root and branch,” McConnell actually had no intention of allowing Lee to go ahead with a repeal vote.

Rather, he took a leaked email from a Lee staffer (full disclosure, that staffer was me) discussing the repeal vote, and used it as a tool to bludgeon Lee in front of his colleagues — not once, but twice — claiming that Lee was using this opportunity only to “divide the party.”

Dividing the party over repeal of Obamacare? The one campaign pledge that they all had in common?

As Ben Domenech later wrote in The Federalist, McConnell’s “bizarre and childish tantrum” over an Obamacare repeal vote raised the question —  did McConnell have the yips?.

But rather than respond in kind, Sen. Lee chose to be the statesman. He withstood the unwarranted scorn of his colleagues and the scathing rebuke from McConnell, and offered to withdraw the amendment — but for something in return. Rather than repeal Obamacare then, he agreed to withdraw the amendment for a promise to repeal Obamacare via the reconciliation process later in the year —  a more potent and powerful opportunity to issue a first strike at the law.

That promise, extracted by Lee from McConnell, formed the basis of the repeal effort, and is the reason McConnell and Ryan can so confidently line up the process in January.


As a result of Lee’s efforts, Republicans passed a reconciliation bill last year that repealed Obamacare. Though it was subsequently vetoed by President Obama, that effort was the single step which proved that Senate Republicans can pass repeal, over all procedural and policy objections. That effort forms the baseline for what Republicans are about to tackle in January. Without Sen. Lee’s courageous stand, they’d be starting from scratch. As a direct result of his efforts, they are instead starting with the wind at their backs.

Some might say that end counts more than the means —  so, since Republicans are going to repeal Obamacare in January, it doesn’t matter how they got there. To them I would reply: Until Lee forced repeal to be included in last year’s reconciliation, it was clear that Senate leadership would make no effort to offer a meaningful vote. Rather, up until that point, they continued to hide behind show votes at a 60-vote threshold —  the kind where members can vote for something, confidently knowing it will never get the 60 votes to pass.

Lee’s actions forced the Senate majority to put its money where its mouth was. No more could they talk a big game while hiding behind show votes; they would actually have to cast a meaningful vote in the direction of full repeal. Without Lee, Senate Republicans would never have fulfilled the promises they made to the voters who elected them.

After spending nearly a decade as a staffer in Congress, I can confidently say there are very few politicians courageous enough to stare down Senate leadership and the ire of their colleagues without blinking. Sen. Lee did just that.

In Washington, holding yourself and others accountable to campaign promises can be a thankless task. Amid all the celebration and self-congratulation that will accompany the first repeal vote in January, Sen. Mike Lee deserves considerable gratitude as the unsung hero of the repeal effort.

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