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Republican finger-pointing begins after late-night defeat of Obamacare repeal bill

Dealing a serious blow to U.S. President Donald Trump's agenda, the Senate early Friday rejected a measure to repeal parts of Obamacare after a night of high suspense in the U.S. capitol.

Democratic leader Chuck Schumer praises 3 Republicans who broke with their party, especially John McCain

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell failed to round up enough support from his own party to pass the measure. 'It's time to move on,' he said. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

Republican finger-pointing commenced Friday after the Senate's dark-of-night defeat of the party's effort to repeal much of the Obama health-care law, a startling vote that dealt a blow to President Donald Trump.

Trump tweeted early Friday: "3 Republicans and 48 Democrats let the American people down" after party leaders failed to patch party divisions and the Senate rejected a last-ditch bill to keep the effort alive.

"As I said from the beginning, let ObamaCare implode, then deal. Watch!"

The "skinny repeal" bill — erasing several parts of President Barack Obama's law — was rejected just before 2 a.m. ET on a vote of 51-49.

All Democrats were joined by Republican senators Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and the ailing John McCain. The 80-year-old Arizona senator made a dramatic return to the Capitol Tuesday after being diagnosed with brain cancer to cast a decisive procedural vote that for a time had advanced the legislation.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer praised the three Republicans who broke with their party, especially McCain.

Schumer told reporters at a news conference Friday: "I have not seen a senator who speaks truth to power as strongly, as well and as frequently as John McCain."

Schumer also praised Maine's Susan Collins and Alaska's Lisa Murkowski as tough women.

Later on Friday, Trump told a group of law enforcement officers in Brentwood, N.Y., on Long Island that the Senate "should have approved health care last night, but you can't have everything."

"Boy, oh boy, they've been working on that one for seven years, can you believe that? The swamp. But we'll get it done. We're going to get it done."

Following rejection of two broader Republican repeal plans earlier in the week, the early Friday vote cast doubt on whether divided Senate Republicans can advance any health bill despite seven years of promises to repeal "Obamacare."

House leaders had no hesitation about blaming the Senate for the collapse of one of the party's paramount priorities. In a statement, Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin pointedly said "the House delivered a bill" and said he was "disappointed and frustrated." Nearly three months earlier, the House approved its health-care package after several embarrassing setbacks.

He added: "But we should not give up. I encourage the Senate to continue working toward a real solution that keeps our promise."

Arizona Sen. John McCain was subject to intense last-minute lobbying efforts by his Republican peers. He ultimately voted against the bill, along with two other Republican senators who have been highly critical of the legislation from the beginning. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

Underscoring the House's view of where the fault lies, leaders opened a morning meeting of the chamber's Republican lawmakers by playing audio of Gordon Lightfoot's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which recounts the 1975 wreck of a freighter in Lake Superior.

Several lawmakers said House deputy whip Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., told them the song was meant as a reference to the Senate.

One moderate Republican said Trump shared responsibility for the bill's breakdown. "One of the failures was the president never laid out a plan or his core principles and never sold them to the American people," said Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent. "Outsourced the whole issue to Congress."

The measure defeated Friday would have repealed an Obama mandate that most people get health insurance and would have suspended a requirement that larger companies offer coverage to their employees. It would have also suspended a tax on medical devices and denied federal payments to Planned Parenthood for a year.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has been a vocal critic of how her fellow Senate Republicans went about drafting the bill behind closed doors. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

"This is clearly a disappointing moment," Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. "I regret that our efforts were not enough this time."

"It's time to move on," he said. McConnell put the health bill on hold and announced that the Senate would move onto other legislation next week.

Conservative Alaska Rep. Mo Brooks, who's running for a vacant Senate seat, suggested it was time for McConnell to relinquish his post.

"If they're going to quit, well then by golly, maybe they ought to start at the top with Mitch McConnell leaving his position and letting somebody new, somebody bold, somebody conservative take the reins," Brooks said on CNN. He added, "How is he going to get the job done on the rest of President Trump's agenda?"

On Twitter, McCain said the repeal bill "fell short of our promise to repeal & replace Obamacare w/ meaningful reform."

'Will continue'

The amendment was a last resort for Senate Republicans to pass something — anything — to trigger negotiations with the House.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said in a statement that the Trump administration would pursue its health care goals through regulation.

"This effort will continue," Price said. But insurers, hospitals, doctors, and consumer groups are pressing the administration to guarantee billions of dollars in disputed subsidies to help stabilize insurance markets around the country.

Buoyed by a signal from Ryan, McConnell had introduced a pared-down health-care bill late Thursday that he hoped would keep alive Republican ambitions to repeal "Obamacare."

The Congressional Budget Office said the measure would have increased the number of uninsured people by 16 million, the same problem that vexed all the "repeal and replace" measures Republicans have offered. Obama's law extended coverage to some 20 million people, reducing the nation's uninsured rate to a historic low of around nine per cent.

Shock wave

Still, Ryan had seemingly opened a path for McConnell earlier Thursday by signalling a willingness to negotiate a more comprehensive bill with the Senate.

Some Republican senators had been concerned that the House would simply pass McConnell's "skinny bill" and send it to Trump. That would have sent a shock wave through health insurance markets, spiking premiums.

Ryan sent senators a statement saying that if "moving forward" requires talks with the Senate, the House would be "willing" to do so. While South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham eventually said he was reassured by Ryan's statement, McCain remained unconvinced.

"Not sufficient," McCain said.

Numerous polls had shown little public support for earlier Republican proposals to repeal and replace Obama's law. A recent AP-NORC poll suggested only 22 per cent of the public backed the Republican approach, while 51 per cent were opposed.

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