Senate Democrats and their progressive allies spent the last week and a half in a full-blown mobilization against an existential threat to the Affordable Care Act.
Now that it has fizzled out, the lead author of the measure, known as the Graham-Cassidy bill, has an admission to make: He had no clue what he was doing.
“It’s been the most amazing journey of my life. I’ve taken the eye off the ball on terrorism, I’m just amazed the whole planet hasn’t crumbled because I wasn’t on it,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of the weeks he’s spent leading the health care repeal effort.
Toward the end of the senator’s bid to rewrite the health care system, as the mirage of the bill’s momentum began to be exposed, the typically charming and witty Graham began to turn acidic in the halls of the Senate, denouncing colleagues in both parties who were objecting to his legislation. “I’m speaking English, right?” he snapped at one reporter.
But now that it’s over, the old Graham is back and more than willing to laugh at how improbable it was that a national security expert briefly held the national limelight as a supposed health policy wonk.
Graham, though, said he was not alone in his lack of understanding of health care. “Nobody in our conference believes Obamacare works. It must be replaced. But until now, we didn’t know how to do it,” Graham told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday, audio of which is posted below.
A reporter pointed out that such ignorance at this late stage is hard to understand. “You’ve been working to overhaul this for seven years. Why is this so hard?” she asked.
“Well, I’ve been doing it for about a month. I thought everybody else knew what the hell they were talking about, but apparently not,” Graham clarified, adding he had assumed “these really smart people will figure it out.”
The crash course in health policy has been a romp, Graham said. “I’ve enjoyed this more than anything. I’ve learned so much about health care in other states — Pennsylvania, Alaska, Ohio,” he said, adding that he even learned about his own state. “South Carolina, we have 11 predominantly African-American counties that have unique health care needs and one size doesn’t fit all, even within your state. I looked at the history of welfare reform, and I think we can replicate that here.”
That Graham thinks reforming health care is analogous to welfare suggests he may still have a ways to go on his journey.
Republican leaders conceded Tuesday that they did not have the 50 votes they needed to move forward with Graham-Cassidy. Of the 52 Republicans in the Senate, John McCain of Arizona, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Susan Collins of Maine publicly opposed the legislation, making the math easy.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski issued a statement after Graham-Cassidy was pulled from the floor, strongly implying she had also opposed the bill. But while she was deliberating, Graham had the chance to learn a thing or two about the northernmost state. “In terms of Alaska, I’ve learned a lot about Alaska health care,” Graham said. “Our friends in Alaska, there are 750,000 people in the state of Alaska, twice the size of Texas. We have learned about their needs. I found out a lot of things about other states I never dreamed of.”
Indeed, Murkowski, in her statement, applauded Graham and his co-sponsor Cassidy as having been “tireless in their efforts” to educate members of the Senate on the bill and to “educate themselves.”
It was an A for effort. “Senator Graham and Senator Cassidy now have a much deeper understanding of Alaska’s unique challenges, needs, and opportunities than they did prior to this effort,” Murkowski head-patted.
The bill’s co-sponsors, though, were not alone in their ignorance, Murkowski allowed. “I feel Senator [Dan] Sullivan and I have made good headway in educating our colleagues and the administration,” she said.
When Graham realized the people he thought understood health care were actually clueless, he figured he and a former senator who is perhaps best known for his name becoming a word to describe the byproduct of a sex act might as well take a crack at it.
“So, this idea came about from a conversation at a barber shop,” Graham said. “Rick Santorum — I was getting my hair cut and he says, you know, you’ve got an opt-out bill — opt out of Obamacare if you don’t like it, take the money and do state-controlled systems. Why don’t you do what we did with welfare reform in ’96, which is basically take the same amount of money and block grant it?”
As a senator, Santorum focused on foreign policy, as Graham does. Graham-Cassidy was unveiled on September 13, dying its final death, for now, on September 25.
But Graham thinks the duo have made real progress.
“We now have an idea that I think Republicans understand, and the average person can understand,” Graham said.