The latest reprieve granted to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) came Tuesday, when the Republican leadership announced that the repeal bill proposed by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) would not come to the floor for a vote this week.
On Saturday, September 30, the GOP’s ability to pass a full repeal measure with a simple majority will expire, per the Senate parliamentarian’s instructions on budget reconciliation. As it stands, the Graham-Cassidy bill is dead in the water.
By nearly all measures, Graham-Cassidy was a policy nightmare, guided not by the economics or patient advocacy that its few proponents espoused, but by a ticking clock and an unfulfilled, seven-year death wish against the ACA. With its failure, millions of Americans will continue to keep their coverage and retain the current law’s robust patient protections.
It is true that many Americans still lack access to quality care, and absent a bipartisan effort to stabilize the insurance exchanges, lower drug prices, and promote broader enrollment, more will continue to suffer under the law as it stands now. Yet with the withdrawal of Graham-Cassidy, the millions who rely on the ACA’s protections and subsidies may breathe a bit easier, for now, at least.
For me, Graham-Cassidy’s failure evoked the memory of a muggy July night, when I stood across from the Capitol steps, a line of uniformed security officers separating myself and some 200 other protesters from the Senate chamber. We had gathered to decry the GOP’s efforts to pass the “skinny repeal,” a watered down predecessor of Graham-Cassidy that was posed to kickstart the process of dismantling the ACA and denying coverage to the millions who are insured because of it.
For nearly six hours, the crowd alternated between echoing exasperated chants off of the Capitol’s marble facade and receiving testimony from organizers, patient activists, and Democratic senators. The speakers uniformly gave messages of hope, yet cracked voices and frequent tears made the desperation of the cause impossible to ignore.
I had arrived at the protest with only an abstract sense of the injustice the night might deliver, but the speakers, many of whom had been saved by the provisions of the ACA or whose children’s futures depended on its protections, gave new weight to my involvement. By the time I learned that votes were being tallied (well past midnight), the moment had become something close to existential, the politics deeply personal.
Thankfully that night, like this week, ended in Republican failure. The next day I rewatched the decisive moment on C-SPAN: John McCain (R-AZ) delivering a dagger-like thumbs down to the Senate clerk and killing the bill, to the visible shock of his GOP colleagues.
When news of McCain’s vote reached the protest, the mood outside the Capitol became incredulous, the moment full of joy and possibility. Soon, Democratic senators stepped out to a makeshift podium to receive and return our thanks. Although we were celebrating the retreat of a crisis rather than the advance of progress, the successful defense of the ACA’s gains felt like victory enough.
It was a memory I cherished all summer, and for a moment it renewed my faith in politics. Yet this month, as Graham-Cassidy’s passage went from a long shot to a real likelihood and then to the brink of success, I was taken aback by how uneasy that same memory began to make me feel. I had staked my optimism too deeply in that night’s political victory, only to learn later how fragile it really was.
These days, I try not to remember that night for its politics. I’ll always remember the people I stood with, the stories I heard, and the tears that were shed. But instead of focusing on the small political victory we shared, I choose to remember the immense humanity and compassion that emanated from the gathered crowd, even as we all expected the worst to pass. Looking back at that night with this new set of eyes, I’m reminded that hope is not found in the politics of government but in the politics of people.
Benjamin Sorensen is a senior studying political science. This is the first edition of his weekly column, “Beyond the Beltway,” about current issues in the federal government.