News of John McCain’s illness broke during meeting to save GOP health care plan

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter

WASHINGTON — Republican senators attempting to save their stalled effort to repeal and replace Obamacare in a late-night meeting Wednesday were interrupted with news of Sen. John McCain’s brain cancer diagnosis.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., told reporters that the senators learned of McCain’s brain cancer diagnosis during the meeting and asked Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., to say a prayer for McCain.

“It was very emotional, almost kind of stunned disbelief for a minute, then we asked James Lankford to lead us in prayer,” Hoeven said.

“It was a sobering moment,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called McCain, who said he wanted to get back to work as quickly as possible.

“I’m going stay here a little bit longer, take some treatments and I’ll be back,” McCain said, according to Graham.

McCain’s office announced Wednesday that the senator had an aggressive brain tumor surgically removed and was reviewing future treatment options, including chemotherapy. McCain, a war hero and the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is a key figure in the conference.

The health care meeting included skeptics of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s repeal and replace bill, such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., as well as administration officials Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Medicaid chief Seema Verma. Senate leadership billed the meeting as Republicans giving a replace plan “one more shot” after talks stalled earlier this week.

Senators streaming out of the late-night meeting said some progress had been made, but conceded McCain’s likely absence from the chamber during treatment made an already tricky process even harder.

“Obviously it makes things difficult,” Sen Bob Corker, R-Tenn. said.

The 52-person Republican caucus has failed to get 50 votes to support a replace plan so far, and McCain’s absence reduces their numbers further. McConnell scheduled a vote on a repeal-only bill on Tuesday, but encouraged Republicans to try to agree on a replace plan before that date. Right now, senators aren’t sure what they’ll be voting on this Tuesday — a motion to proceed on an updated version of repeal and replace they would then amend, or straight repeal. And it seems unlikely they have enough votes to start debate on either measure at this point.

The Congressional Budget Office predicted a straight repeal would lead to 32 million fewer Americans having health insurance over 10 years, if Congress does not replace it with an alternative plan. McConnell says Congress would come up with a replace plan during the two-year delay before repeal goes into effect.

Before leaving the Capitol last week, McCain urged his party to start over on health care and come up with a new plan through an open committee process, instead of behind closed doors. A few of his Republican colleagues agree, but McConnell hasn’t given up yet.

Senators were still “throwing out ideas” in the meeting, according to Hoeven, but no breakthroughs were made. Asked whether they were close to a deal, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., said it’s “hard to say.”

Murkowski said she wasn’t sure how she would vote Tuesday, because she doesn’t know what she’d be asked to vote on.

“It’s difficult for me to say yes or no on whether to proceed because it’s not certain what we would be proceeding to,” she said.

When asked what senators would be voting on, Cruz said those conversations were ongoing.

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