It was a stunning and dramatic shift for a lawmaker who had expressed strong and consistent doubts about the specifics of how the GOP plans to fulfill a 2016 campaign promise would also impact opioid addicts in his state.
The vote capped a dramatic afternoon on the Senate floor – nearly every Senate desk occupied, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., flying in after revealing last week that he has been diagnosed with brain cancer.
Senators from both parties stood and applauded and McCain hugged both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
With 50 Republicans voting to proceed while Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine joining 46 Democrats and two independents in voting to kill the effort. Vice President Mike Pence broke the tie.
The proceedings were interrupted by a long, restrained protest from the Senate galleries – chants of “Shame, shame, shame,” and “Kill the bill” ringing through the chambers. One protester pointed at individual senators as he shouted “kill the bill.”
Portman – who, along with a handful of other senators, has been under intense pressure from both opponents and supporters of repeal – presided over the Senate as the chants dragged on, often drowning out his attempts to bring order to the Senate.
For Portman, the deal was sealed: He had already called Ohio Gov. John Kasich to inform him of his decision, a source close to Kasich told The Dispatch.
After the vote, Portman said his goal is “to create a more workable health care system that lowers the cost of coverage and provides access to quality care, while protecting the most vulnerable in our society.”
“With more and more Ohioans facing higher costs and limited options, I am committed to repealing and replacing this law with better solutions,” he said. “But as ObamaCare is replaced, it must be done in a way that gives all Ohioans access to affordable health care.”
He said the most recent Senate bill is an improvement over the first Senate bill, including $45 billion in new resources for states to address the opioid epidemic.
But he said he still has concerns about the Medicaid policies in the bill. He is pushing an amendment that would add $100 billion to help pay for those transitioning off the Medicaid expansion.
For those who have followed Portman’s career, it reinforced his image as a conservative Republican. One Republican said the votes “questions the notion that so many in the national media so many latch on to that R is some kind of moderate. He’s a conservative with strong conservative principles, but he’s fighting at the same time to ensure the best possible outcome for the state of Ohio.”
According to a GOP source, McConnell will plan to move forward on a Senate repeal bill, Portman’s amendment as well as a proposal by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that would allow insurers to sell stripped-down, inexpensive plans on the individual markets.
But those three proposals would, under Senate rules, require 60 votes for passage, and the Senate only has 52 GOP senators.
The Senate would then move forward on a “skinny” repeal – one that GOP leaders hope will include a repeal of the individual mandate, a repeal of the employer mandate and a repeal of the medical device tax.
Portman said he was heartened that he’s received a commitment to push his amendment.
The Senate would push the Cruz and Portman amendment in order to later push for those amendments when the Senate and House iron out differences in their respective bills.
Portman’s decision to move forward seemingly counters the months of concern he has expressed about GOP proposals to dramatically alter the 2010 health care law known as Obamacare.
During a speech Saturday night before Ohio Republicans, Portman spoke strongly against the option of repealing Obamacare without a replacement. But he also opposes the most recent Senate plan to be made public.
As a key swing vote, Portman has been involved in talks with President Donald Trump and Pence about altering the Senate proposal.
Portman also opposes the version of the bill that the House passed. In fact, he has signaled supreme discomfort with how virtually every GOP repeal bill has rolled back the Medicaid expansion, which would put Ohio’s ability to treat its opioid addicts at risk. Kasich also has objected to the bill for much the same reason. Ohio has added more than 700,000 to the Medicaid rolls under the expansion.
Trump has ramped up the pressure, jokingly threatening to fire his health secretary if it doesn’t pass.
The president, who is scheduled to appear in Youngstown on Tuesday night, tweeted Tuesday morning that “the American people have waited long enough. There has been enough talk and no action for seven years. Now is the time for action.”