Lee no longer a holdout on health care — at least for now

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SALT LAKE CITY — After being a holdout on the Senate's efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, cast a deciding vote Tuesday in favor of going forward with debate.

Lee's decision not to join fellow GOP Sens. Susan Collins, of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, in voting no on the procedural motion meant Vice President Mike Pence, a Republican, was able to break what was a 50-50 tie in the Senate.

All 48 Senate Democrats voted against the motion and at least a dozen Republicans, including Lee, had expressed concerns about previous health care legislation aimed at undoing President Barack Obama's signature plan, known as Obamacare.

When the Senate voted Tuesday evening on the bill's initial amendment, it underscored how hard it will be for the chamber's divided Republicans to pass a sweeping replacement of Obama's law.

By 57-43 — including nine GOP defectors — the Senate blocked a wide-ranging proposal by McConnell to erase and replace much of the statute. It included language by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, letting insurers sell cut-rate policies with skimpy coverage, plus an additional $100 billion to help states ease out-of-pocket costs for people losing Medicaid sought by Midwestern moderates including Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

There was high drama earlier in the day as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., returned to the Capitol for the first time after being diagnosed with brain cancer to cast a decisive "yes" vote.

Despite the vote, McCain took a lecturing tone afterward and hardly saw success assured for the legislation after weeks of misfires, even after Tuesday's victory for Trump and Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

"If this process ends in failure, which seems likely, then let's return to regular order," McCain said as he chided Republican leaders for devising the legislation in secret along with the administration and "springing it on skeptical members."

At the White House, though, Trump wasted no time in declaring a win and slamming the Democrats anew.

"I'm very happy to announce that, with zero of the Democrats' votes, the motion to proceed on health care has just passed. And now we move forward toward truly great health care for the American people," Trump said.

Lee was still undecided Tuesday morning, but said in a statement after the vote, "we campaigned on repealing Obamacare for seven years. I hope my colleagues will honor their promise and vote with me for the 2015 repeal bill."

As the process continues to play out, Lee is hoping to limit the scope of the health care plan "in the hopes of providing the most relief possible for Utah families," Lee's spokesman, Conn Carroll, said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has been supportive all along of the Senate effort.

He called Tuesday's vote "a critical first step in the process of fixing our broken health care system" and said senators will get a chance to have their preferences known through the amendment process.

"I’m pleased so many of my Republican colleagues came together to keep our promise to the American people, and I look forward to a robust debate with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” Hatch said in a statement.

Lee made headlines last week for being at the center of the health care debate. He and several other conservative Republican senators stalled leadership's bill, earning them criticism from President Donald Trump and Hatch.

Utah's junior senator told Politico then he was "not being an absolutist” but that the Senate proposal didn't go far enough.

Lee was seeking an amendment that would allow insurance companies to sell any health coverage plan they want as long as they provide at least one plan that satisfies Obamacare mandates.

His position put him at odds with Hatch, who said in the same Politico article that he didn't see Lee "looking for a path to yes. It seems like he’s against everything right now.”

Contributing: Associated Press

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