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Which GOP Senators Might Resurrect The Health Care Bill?

In this week’s politics chat, we game out how likely the Senate health care bill is to pass, senator by senator. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): The GOP health care bill in the Senate is “in peril” according to The New York Times, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has reportedly told members of the caucus that he will delay a vote on the bill until after next week’s July Fourth recess:

But, of course, a vote on the House’s version of an Obamacare repeal bill was delayed before it passed in that chamber. And the media declared that bill nearly dead too. So we’re taking an “it’s-not-dead-until-it’s-dead” approach here at FiveThirtyEight. And, accordingly, we thought it’d be useful to go through the Republican senators who appear most likely to vote “no” on the bill (its official name is the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017, fwiw) and talk through their incentives and whether they’ll actually vote no.

Everyone good on the plan?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Yes.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Can we have a draft?

micah: No.

natesilver: I pick Dean Heller.

micah: We have 10 GOP senators, and then we’ll have a group of wild cards.

natesilver: And how are we evaluating them?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): By looks, the way voters do.

micah: They’ve all expressed some version of concern/reluctance about the bill, so we’ll judge each on how much we think they’re posturing vs. how likely we think they are to actually vote “no”?

clare.malone: Let’s do it.

micah: The scale is …

  1. This person is telling the truth. They’re a likely “no.”
  2. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  3. Bullshit. This senator is posturing and will likely vote “yes” if it comes down to it.

natesilver: Can we use emojis?

  1. 😀
  2. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  3. 💩

micah: In no particular order …

First up: Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.


perry: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

She’s a 2.

clare.malone: Yeah, I think she’s up in the air — like that George Clooney movie.

natesilver: 2.

clare.malone: New senator, and the bill would genuinely screw many people in her state struggling with a massive health crisis. I think that’s a big decision to make if you vote against your party.

micah: Take a stand, Harry.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): She will probably vote for it if she is the deciding vote but won’t otherwise.

clare.malone: hm!

natesilver: I’d say more like a 2.181461 if we’re using decimals. Are we allowed to use decimals? I think she’d really rather not vote for the bill but probably would if McConnell really needed her vote.

It also seems like she has one of the more buyable votes. Add extra money for opioid care, and she can claim victory, although that bill would still hurt West Virginia in all sorts of other ways.

perry: She has a strong case, being from one of the poorest states in the country, to vote against a bill that rolls back Medicaid. But she has been fairly restrained, so it makes me think she would be open to voting some kind of Obamacare repeal.

natesilver: West Virginia’s senators tend to stay in office for a long time, but one of the ways they do that is by really knowing their state. I think I’m talking myself into thinking Capito needs to get a pretty good deal from McConnell and could be an underrated problem for him. I’m revising back down to a true 2.0.

harry: Going to get a little political science here for you. We saw in the House version that members were more likely to vote against the bill if they had a negative second dimension DW-Nominate score, which roughly corresponds to being more willing to buck the establishment. Capito actually has a positive one. Now, that’s not always indicative, but it does suggest a member of Congress who is more likely to go along with leadership.

clare.malone: What do we think a deal for West Virginia looks like? Increased funds for treatment centers JUST for that state?

natesilver: I don’t think we’re talking about a West Virginia-specific deal. But McConnell seemed to leave a lot on the table in terms of funding for opioid treatment, perhaps specifically in order to give Capito something to bargain with.

micah: OK … Next, from the Lone Star State, is Sen. Ted Cruz!

harry: The man voted for the man who said his father could be involved with the John F. Kennedy assassination.

natesilver: 💩

2.85 on the scale of 1 to 3, i.e., mostly bullshit.

perry: Yeah, he seems like a fake opponent. In general, he is trying to get on Trump’s good side, I assume in an effort to position himself for a future presidential run. I think, if this gets serious and close to a vote, he will find a way toward supporting it.

micah: Wow. People are skeptical of Mr. Cruz. Clare, you agree?

clare.malone: Yeah, do I even need to add a voice to this chorus?

micah: lol

clare.malone: Cruz is posturing to keep up his “constitutional conservatism cred,” but he wants to go with the flow ultimately. I think his buddy Mike Lee is more interesting.

micah: NEXT!!!

Utah Sen. Mike Lee!

(Clare, stop stealing my thunder!)

clare.malone: heh heh

micah: As moderator, I can only do so many things in these chats. (i.e., moderate/sometimes I give my opinion if I want to.)

harry: Here’s why I think Lee could be for real. 1. He didn’t vote Trump in 2016. He stuck to his word. 2. He’s already on the list of people who not only oppose the bill but also say they won’t vote to bring it to the floor. I don’t think he’s un-gettable, but I do genuinely believe him.

clare.malone: Lee’s beliefs, which on paper are similar to Cruz’s, appear more dearly held to him. He strikes me as someone less likely to make a deal with McConnell. I believe they call it “being principled.” I tend to believe that Cruz is more of an opportunist and that Lee is a principled conservative.

As much as politicians are principled. 🙂

perry: I want to reserve my 1s for people who I think are very serious opponents of the legislation. For example, I think another conservative senator is going to oppose this pretty much no matter what. We will get to him later. I would put Lee in a 1.2 or 1.3 — I think he is a serious opponent of the current legislation, but I think he wants to get to “yes.” I would put him in the same place as the Freedom Caucus during the House process. He can be negotiated with.

harry: I think Mr. Bacon is right.

micah: I like using the “what people did on Trump during the campaign” standard for how much to trust what they say.

harry: Yeah, I’d believe someone who said they’d vote for Trump and then did so. Or said they wouldn’t and then didn’t. But how the heck can anyone believe Cruz after the show he put on during the 2016 campaign?

clare.malone: God forbid we hold people to things they said or did eight months ago.

natesilver: Wow. I can’t believe y’all continued the chat while I was picking up your lunch. I’m more skeptical of Lee than Perry and would put him at like a 2.1. I buy that he has genuine ideological concerns with the bill. But he also has been very explicit about saying that he was open to gritting his teeth and changing his mind. I think he’s a vote that would come through for McConnell if McConnell needed his vote. Probably.

perry: Interesting.

micah: Next!

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson.

(This one surprised me.)

perry: I would say 2, mainly because I just don’t know much about him. He has been fiery in blasting the bill this week, in The New York Times of all places. But he is not known for crossing leadership in general. I’m somewhat confused by his behavior, tbh.

natesilver: I’d say a 2.3. I can’t quite figure out what he’s up to, but he’s not someone you would have predicted to be opposed to the bill.

Maybe he’s trying to be a hipster by opposing the bill from the right, when he’s actually worried about how it will play from the center/left in Wisconsin.

True, he’s not up for re-election until 2022. But he’s not a particularly strong incumbent, having only narrowly survived last year in a pretty good cycle for Republicans. And Wisconsin is still a purple state, if a bit Trump-y.

harry: If you had asked me a week ago, I would have said that Johnson was bluffing. His current stance is “not ready to vote for this bill, but we are open to negotiation.” He’s not as conservative as Cruz or Lee. But he’s also suggested that he might be against even bringing the bill to the floor. Also, he wrote that op-ed in the Times.

perry: Exactly! It’s significant this was in the Times, not Washington Examiner or something.

micah: Wait, so the op-ed being in the Times makes you think he’s more serious?

perry: Yeah, I think bashing the bill in the Times is somewhat more aggressive than in a more conservative outlet. Maybe that is a false read, but that was my initial reaction.

micah: I don’t know. I guess I would have thought the opposite. What does Johnson care what Times readers think of him?

clare.malone: I mean, we talk a lot about the regional stereotypes around election time — that upper Midwesterners aren’t the same kind of conservative as other places in the country. Maybe what we’re seeing is a manifestation of that in Johnson: a worry about how his voters might take it.

micah: I like the “he’s opposing it from the right but his political worries are actually from the middle” theory.

perry: Oddly, I think that theory applies most to the chief opponent of the bill — more on that later.

clare.malone: I also think a lot of these guys are salty that McConnell didn’t give them a look at the bill before it was released. Some of this could be personally tinged.

micah: Clare accused me of being “salty” the other day too, so factor that in.

natesilver: Yeah. I know we’re not allowed to say that because the conventional wisdom is that he’s a super-genius. But McConnell’s secretive draft process could have backfired.

micah: OK, NEXT!!!!

micah: Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

perry: McConnell will probably invite her to the next bill-drafting club he creates. That was a mistake, leaving her out of the original 13 working on this legislation. She did not bother to hide her annoyance.

clare.malone: Collins seems like she’ll actually vote “no.”

natesilver: 1.2 on Collins. I think her opposition is for real, and I think she’ll be hard to peel off without big, substantive changes.

harry: I mean Collins is the most moderate Republican senator (for the nerds: data is here). She’s voted against Trump more than any other Republican senator. What else do you want?

clare.malone: Her state is very old, and this bill is not good for that. She’s defended Planned Parenthood. To Harry’s point, she’s legitimately moderate.

perry: Yeah, she’s a 1 — probably among the three most likely opponents of the bill.

natesilver: Maine is also a poor state. It hasn’t expanded Medicaid yet because Gov. Paul LePage has vetoed expansion, but it has a ballot initiative to do so this November, which will probably pass. And she’s thinking about running for governor in 2018.

Is she going to take a huge political risk — perhaps tangibly harming her chances of becoming governor — so that McConnell can give a hall pass to Rand Freakin’ Paul? I’m not so sure.

micah: Our next contestant: Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky!

clare.malone: lol. Next!

Paul will not vote for this bill because he loves not voting for things.

micah: Contrarian 🔥 take: He would vote for it if McConnell needed him to.

natesilver: I’m more like a 1.5 on Paul. I think he’s the most interesting vote. And possibly the pivotal vote.

clare.malone: He said he might vote for “80 percent repeal” of Obamacare. I don’t quite know what that means in McConnell terms, though.

natesilver: As I pointed out this morning, the BCRA really is a victory for movement conservatism, which isn’t exactly the same thing as libertarianism but has some overlap with it.

clare.malone: Apparently McConnell won’t talk to him.

perry: I think he is a 1, along with Collins and another soon-to-discussed person, one of the top three most likely to oppose this.

natesilver: I guess I’m just thinking, in terms of the relative order, it matters which one of those three are ranked 1st, 2nd and 3rd. And Paul has less credible reasons for voting against the bill than Collins or the guy we’re going to discuss later does.

harry: Paul is just so interesting ideologically. He is someone who is more libertarian than the Freedom Caucus in my mind. That is, he probably has more in common with Thomas Massie or Walter Jones than Justin Amash. But … I don’t know … there’s something just biting me in my neck saying he’s not his father, saying he will fold.

perry: What I’m struggling with is: 1. He is in the state that benefited more from Obamacare than perhaps any other, something he can’t say but is aware of and 2. I think he will have a hard time opposing this bill if it moves right and becomes backed by Heritage Action, Americans for Prosperity, etc.

natesilver: Yeah, there’s a little bit of the Ron Johnson say-you’re-opposing-it-from-the-right-when-you-actually-have-concerns-from-the-center thing going on with Paul.

Also, I wonder if he hates McConnell’s guts.

perry: Also, the bill is going to move in Paul’s direction. He doesn’t like this bill. But it’s going to move toward him, I suspect …

micah: Sen. Cory Gardner of the great state of Colorado!

natesilver: He’s a bit of a mystery man. I’d put him at a 2, even though he hasn’t been as vocal about the bill as some of the other purple-state senators.

perry: He is a 3. He is in leadership. He probably wants to avoid voting for this. But if a bill gets to the floor, he will vote for it.

harry: Mr. “I am beginning to carefully review it.”

clare.malone: He’s pretty “in the middle” ideologically. What do we think he’s most spooked by?

natesilver: I think I’m just going a little bit more by naked electoral incentives. Colorado is the bluest state with a Republican senator. Gardner is up in 2020, a year that’s sure to have high turnout, and Democrats have a pretty deep bench there.

He’s got to conspicuously begin to moderate, or he’s at a lot of risk of being a one-termer.

harry: One other thing to note, DW-Nominate has scales that join the House and Senate: a single one for the House and a single one for the Senate. On the Senate scale, Gardner is to the left of the average Republican in the Senate. On the House scale, he was to the right of the average Republican. That suggests major moderation given House Republicans are more conservative.

perry: He is No. 1 in our Trump plus-minus, which is not perfect but means that he’s been willing to buck the politics of his state and vote with Trump more often than anyone else. The best outcome for Gardner is to get the bill killed without killing it. I assume he wants to run for president down the line and being perceived as being pro-Obamacare would not help.

micah: President Gardner!?

clare.malone: Sounds like a sitcom prez.

micah: It does.

clare.malone: But there would be a lot of great TV commercials to be made of him walking through fields surrounded by mountains talking about Western independence yada yada yada.

micah: He doesn’t look very “presidential.” He looks like the senior vice president of a regional bank.

perry: He won a blue state by a relatively big margin. If he can do that again, it’s a great narrative. I didn’t say he would win or that I think he is a good candidate.

micah: Perry’s all in on the Gardner 2020 bandwagon!!!

Mark it down!

perry: Also, if you are in leadership this early in your career, it suggests you might want to be majority leader down the line. Another reason not to oppose a bill publicly like this.

natesilver: Perry’s point is a good one, but the fact is also that Gardner is in a pretty comparable position to Dean Heller, who I guess we haven’t mentioned yet but who came out pretty vehemently against the bill.

micah: Next! Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada.

micah: Who all of you apparently could not wait to talk about.

clare.malone: Re-election, baby: 2018 or bussssssst.

natesilver: Heller is a 1.1. He’s in real electoral trouble. And he made very strong comments against the bill, to the point that he seemed to burn his bridges so he couldn’t reverse himself later. Which may have been a deliberate strategy, to make it harder for McConnell to pressure him.

harry: Brother Heller is voting against that bill.

perry: Right. I agree with that take pretty much fully.

natesilver: If the bill goes down, then Rep. Jacky Rosen, who announced her Senate run last week and will be a very tough opponent for Heller, deserves a lot of credit.

micah: As Perry noted in his piece on Monday.

harry: Two sidenotes for the readers out there: Dina Titus, another Nevada member of the House, may also run against Heller. Also, Heller is another former member of the House who moderated significantly upon entering the Senate.

perry: I think Nevada’s governor, Brian Sandoval, was a key factor here too. He’s expanded Medicaid in the state and opposes this bill.

harry: YES!

harry: Sandoval is very popular in the state. Heller is … not.

micah: Our penultimate senator: Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

clare.malone: She’s a “let’s make a deal” person, possibly.

To go back to the “what could McConnell give these people” vein of things, there could be a carve-out for Alaska as an outlier where health care is more expensive and thus it gets some kind of deal.

natesilver: She’s a 1.75, I think. Federal law makes all sorts of weird exceptions for Alaska and Hawaii, so presumably McConnell can make an “Alaska Purchase.” But she’s pretty fearless of a primary challenge, and Alaska gets very screwed by the bill without changes.

perry: 1.5. I think she has reservations. She has been public about her reservations throughout the year. There are already three “no” votes. I think she will vote “no.” Will she be part of the three “no” votes, meaning that she basically killed the bill. I’m not so sure.

harry: She’s fairly moderate. The bill screws her state, etc.

clare.malone: I like how you guys are doing decimal points on all this. I liked the “buckets” thing better.

micah: The idea behind the buckets was to avoid a false precision … that kinda went out the window.

perry: And we screwed it up. Alas.

micah: lol.

natesilver: I’m revising my grade on Murkowski to a 1.710951012519690346.

micah: Finally, Sen. Rob Portman, from the below-average state of Ohio!

clare.malone: A state where our mothers tell us not to take that kind of bait, Micah.

micah: Damn.

natesilver: Micah is just buttering up to his boss, a Michigan native.

micah: Nah, that state sucks, too.

perry: Portman is a 3. I’m pretty sure he will vote for it.

micah: Anyone disagree with Perry and think Portman might actually vote “no”?

perry: Portman is a fairly loyal Republican. He has helped write the bill. If like 10 members vote against it, sure, he joins them, because of Medicaid and the opioid problem in his state. But I think in a close vote, he will be “yes.”

harry: Yeah, Portman would probably vote for the bill. I’m not sure he’s a full 3, though. Somewhere between a 2 and a 3.

natesilver: I’m a 2.5910234 on Portman. He’s a genuinely moderate guy, but also a guy who’s pretty loyal to leadership.

clare.malone: I mean, he’s on the record as having concerns, so he can wave that to people who say he sold out on the opioid stuff if he votes for it.

harry: He is ideologically very similar to Heller, but he doesn’t have the re-election concerns.

natesilver: Yeah, as with Capito, some extra money for opioid treatment could help to secure his vote. He’s also a plausible-ish future presidential or VP candidate, so he may be thinking very far ahead. About which “lane” he might want to run in.

micah: OK, anyone want to say anything about Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona or Bill Cassidy of Louisiana? That’s our “Marginally Important Wild Card Group.”

You get one reply.

clare.malone: I’m loving the Arizona solidarity.

micah: Now, Louisiana is a great state.

harry: Flake is the only one of those with re-election concerns in 2018, but he has to be concerned over a primary and a general election challenge. He’s also moderated significantly since coming to the Senate. I think he could be interesting to watch.

natesilver: Of the three, Cassidy’s the most interesting wild card, I think. He and Collins had a serious bill of their own, and he was totally left out of the drafting process by McConnell. Plus he has some Capito-ish issues in that he’s in a Medicaid expansion state that would be adversely affected by the House and Senate health care bills. I’d put him at like a 2.15.

perry: I will go with Cassidy, just because he knows health care and has been on the record about his concerns. I could see a case for Flake, for the reasons Harry listed.

clare.malone: To explain my comment above, I actually think McCain is maybe giving Flake some cover.

perry: Interesting theory. Makes sense. I covered McCain in 2008 some. He is not deep on the health care issue, so his speaking out to help Flake makes some sense.

natesilver: If Flake got a strong Democratic opponent in Arizona, his tone might change — so far, he doesn’t have one. McCain is probably just bluffing unless McConnell does weird stuff that violates the Senate parliamentarian’s ruling, and even then he’ll probably cave anyway. So on my scale, Flake’s like a 2.52 and McCain’s like a 2.667103512120.

micah: OK, so here’s generally where you put people:

Rand Paul 😀 (Likely “no”)

Dean Heller 😀

Susan Collins 😀

Mike Lee 😀

Lisa Murkowski ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (could go either way)

Shelley Moore Capito ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Cory Gardner ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Ron Johnson ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Ted Cruz 💩 (would probably vote for the bill if it comes to it)

Rob Portman 💩

Final reactions?

clare.malone: I like our whip count better than other publications’ because it has emojis. Competitive advantage.

perry: What I think this analysis has clarified for me is the importance of Paul and Lee and how much McConnell must move the bill to the right for any chance of passage, since we think Heller and Collins are gone. That means that Murkowski is super-important too and Capito, since they are positioned to object if the bill moves too far right.

natesilver: Heller 1.1

Collins 1.2

Paul 1.5

Murkowski 1.710951013

Gardner 2

Capito 2

Lee 2.1

Cassidy 2.15

Johnson 2.3

Flake 2.52

Portman 2.5910234

McCain 2.667103512

Cruz 2.85

micah: Nate, you don’t get your own scores!

natesilver: Rand Paul is the most important man in the Senate right now. McConnell has a lot fewer degrees of freedom to play with if Paul is truly committed to voting against the bill.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.