KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
It's been a dramatic day on Capitol Hill. Senate Republicans scored a narrow but meaningful victory in the party's effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Senator John McCain, who was just diagnosed with brain cancer, returned to Washington for that vote, and Vice President Mike Pence had to be the tiebreaker. So now the Senate can begin debating health care legislation. But what happens next on health care? Well, no one seems to know for sure. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is on Capitol Hill, and she is with us now. And, Sue, you were in the chamber for the vote. What was it like?
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: You know, most votes in Congress have predetermined outcomes. You know what's going to happen before the vote's over. This was really a nail-biter until the very end. Moments before the vote, it became clear it was likely going to pass when holdouts like Dean Heller of Nevada and Rob Portman of Ohio announced that they were going to vote yes with the party. In the end, the only two noes were two moderate senators who we knew were likely noes, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. And of course, the vote would have failed if not for, as you said, Kelly, the return of Arizona Senator John McCain, who is battling brain cancer and came back to vote to move forward on health care.
MCEVERS: And what was his return to the floor like today?
DAVIS: He, you know, was greeted with a standing ovation and applause. His return was certainly sort of a factor in the mood up here in keeping the pressure on lawmakers to move forward on this bill. But in sort of a classic McCain move, he came back to help the party, and then in a speech immediately after chastised his colleagues for writing the bill the way they have. Take a listen to McCain on the floor.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN MCCAIN: We've been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle. That's an approach that's been employed by both sides - mandating legislation from the top down without any support from the other side with all the parliamentary maneuvers that requires. We're getting nothing done, my friends. We're getting nothing done.
DAVIS: And McCain made a very important point that a lot of other Senate Republicans have said they were a yes today, they're agreeing to start debating health care, but they might still be a no on whatever legislation Republicans ultimately come up with in the end.
MCEVERS: OK. This vote allows them to start debating health care, as you just said. But what bill exactly are they going to be debating?
DAVIS: This is the greatest mystery in Washington right now, Kelly.
DAVIS: You know, the motion that - today, the base bill is what the House has passed. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's going to offer a couple amendments to swap out that bill for legislation that would just repeal Obamacare and another vote on legislation that's more closer to the Senate version of the health care bill. If any combination of those passes, they'll become the new baseline. We don't know the outcome of those votes. So after they get through that, we're just going to start later this week on an amendment process that will essentially let every senator - even Democrats here - weigh in on health care and offer amendments to a bill to shape it as it goes.
MCEVERS: So does that mean that this legislation is basically going to be written on the floor of the Senate as this debate unfolds?
DAVIS: Essentially, yes. You know, I - we don't know what the end product is going to look like on health care. We know that they are on the bill now. McConnell is also keeping in his back pocket another option that has emerged this week that is being referred to as Skinny Repeal, which is essentially the most pared-down version of what Republicans say they can agree on, which would simply repeal the individual mandate and employer mandates and some of the taxes in Obamacare.
If they - the goal, I am told, is to just get something through the Senate that will then allow Senate Republicans to go into negotiations with House Republicans and see if the two chambers can ultimately come up with a bill that they can pass. The bottom line here is if they do pass some kind of a health care bill later this week, it means that the health care fight in Congress is likely going to continue into the fall and maybe well into the fall.
MCEVERS: All right, we'll keep watching it. NPR's Susan Davis on Capitol Hill. Thank you.
DAVIS: Thank you.
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