Update at 8:40 p.m. ET: Senate passed legislation to defund Planned Parenthood and repeal the Affordable Care Act, with a 52-47 vote.
Here is our original post:
Senate Republicans are expected to achieve two goals on Thursday that have long eluded them — they'll pass a bill that defunds Planned Parenthood and repeals the Affordable Care Act. The House has managed to vote more than 50 times to repeal all or part of the health care law, but it's always been tougher in the Senate, where Republicans don't have the 60 votes needed to pass bills Democrats oppose. This year, they'll have a special procedure at their disposal to get around that.
But first, let's make it very clear — nothing that happens on the Senate floor this week will ever actually become law, because any bill that repeals the Affordable Care Act and defunds Planned Parenthood is going to get vetoed by the president.
So, some might ask, what is the value of this exercise?
"The value is to let him know — the president — and others that there's a big division in this country, and a lot of us don't like it, and the American people don't like it," said Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama.
In other words, symbolic votes are important. They give senators a chance to go on the record. They provide fodder for campaign ads later. So, to Republicans, even though there's a pileup of stuff Congress has to get through in the next couple of weeks — like funding the government, passing a highway bill and extending tax breaks — making Obama veto a bill that undermines his health care law and Planned Parenthood is worth their time.
"The president can't be shielded by the weighty decision he'll finally have to make when this measure lands right on his desk," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. "When the president picks up his pen, he'll have a real choice to make."
It's a confrontation Republicans have been craving for a long time. They're using a special process called reconciliation. It's a budget-related procedure that allows some legislation to get through the Senate with only 51 votes, instead of the usual 60.
Even after a shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado last week, momentum to defund the organization hasn't slowed.
"Individuals who speak out for the life of children shouldn't suddenly be silenced by being screamed down because an insane person does a shooting in a clinic," said Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma on the floor Wednesday.
But stripping federal funds from Planned Parenthood may not be a slam-dunk. Republicans can only afford three defections for their bill to pass with the required 51 votes. And one of those defections could be Susan Collins of Maine.
"My concern is that this total prohibition of federal funding, including Medicaid funds, for Planned Parenthood would cause millions of women across the country to have to find new health care providers," said Collins.
And, there's another provision in the bill that guts the Affordable Care Act's expansion of Medicaid. That was to placate hard-line conservatives who didn't think the bill went far enough to eviscerate Obamacare. But the Medicaid provision could cost votes from other Republicans, who are up for re-election in competitive states.
So it hasn't been exactly smooth sailing to win over 51 Republican votes. It's been a longer and harder undertaking than many Republicans had expected. Much to the annoyance of Democrats.
"So the fact that we blow off a day, two or three in the closing hours of this session for this political posturing, which is doomed to a presidential veto, is a waste of the time of the Senate," said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Some Republicans say that maybe by holding these symbolic votes this week, they'll satisfy their constituents, and that could ease passage of a government spending bill next week.
But Durbin scoffed at that idea.
"So you're assuming we aren't going to re-vote these issues three or four times?" he asked. "In the Senate, Sen. McConnell likes to re-vote things over and over and over again."