Sen. John McCain, the longtime “maverick” whose thumbs-down quashed the GOP’s push to repeal Obamacare in July, is now at the center of a long-shot bid to revive the repeal effort before Republicans run out of time.
The Arizona Republicans said he supports a plan by three GOP Senate colleagues — including his good friend, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — that would effectively let states take their Obamacare money and run with it.
Sponsors say the White House is intrigued by the bill, which is set to be filed as soon as next week.
“I think it’s a good proposal and I think we ought to support it,” Mr. McCain told reporters after his party’s midweek luncheon.
The veteran senator cooled expectations within hours of backing the plan, however, saying he supports it in theory but would need to see a finished bill, open debate and buy-in from governors before he’s a “yes.”
It’s the latest instance of Mr. McCain playing mercurial dealmaker.
Over the course of more than 30 years in the Senate, Mr. McCain has helped broker landmark bills on campaign finance limits and on legalizing illegal immigrants, has rooted out corruption and billions of dollars in waste — and all the while kept colleagues guessing.
The most recent example came in July when GOP Senate leaders were looking to secure votes to debate a slimmed-down Obamacare repeal. Two Republicans had already voted against the repeal, but if Mr. McCain backed it, the 50-50 vote would give Vice President Mike Pence a chance to break the tie and begin the debate.
Mr. McCain said he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Instead, he has made a fiery and personal plea to colleagues to return to bipartisanship and open debate.
Mr. Graham — whose close partnership with Mr. McCain and former Sen. Joe Lieberman earned them the “Three Amigos” label — says he will try to check the right boxes before the end-of-month deadline to act on Obamacare repeal.
Yet the plan, which Mr. Graham is co-sponsoring with Republican senators Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Dean Heller of Nevada, faces incredibly long odds.
GOP leaders who’ve pivoted to tax reform will be loath to take up another health care bill unless it’s a slam-dunk, and a bipartisan crop of senators is working on a competing package to bolster Obamacare’s markets before open enrollment begins Nov. 1.
But Mr. Graham and Mr. Cassidy are pushing ahead, rushing to meet a Sept. 30 deadline for getting something done under the 2017 budget, which helps the GOP avoid a Democratic filibuster.
“Senator Cassidy is still confident that Graham-Cassidy is a path forward. McCain’s support is huge in getting to 50 [votes],” Cassidy spokesman Ty Bofferding said.
Mr. Graham said the block-grant approach has wide appeal among Republicans, especially Mr. McCain.
“He’d love to get money and power out of Washington,” Mr. Graham said. “But we’ve got to get formulas worked out that work for each state, including Arizona.”
Mr. Trump used a recent rally in Phoenix to prod Mr. McCain in less encouraging terms. Standing before supporters, Mr. Trump failed to wish Mr. McCain well in his battle against glioblastoma, a form of brain tumor.
Instead, he alluded to Mr. McCain’s pivotal vote to sink the repeal effort. “One vote away. I will not mention any names,” he told the crowd. “Very presidential, isn’t it?”
Mr. Trump intensified his attacks on senior Republicans this week, working with senior Democrats to punt fights over government spending and the debt limit into December as part of a relief package for Hurricane Harvey.
Mr. McCain voted against that deal.
In the renewed health care debate, Mr. McCain says he wants to hear from Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on how the block grants would affect their state.
Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican and one of the other two GOP opponents during the repeal debate, told reporters she has “reservations” about the plan, although it is a work in progress.
She said most of the Senate’s focus is on a different bill coming out of the health committee that would stabilize Obamacare’s markets.
“The fact is we’re going to have four hearings, and then by the end of the week, I think you’ll see the outlines of a bill emerging from the committee,” said Ms. Collins, who sits on the health panel.
Obamacare’s defenders are still leery, however, saying any glimmer of daylight for repeal is worth watching.
Andy Slavitt, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Obama, said Republicans would be tempted to finish the job if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suddenly found the votes for Graham-Cassidy-Heller.
“If it narrowly were to pass the Senate, it would likely be presented to the House [as] take-it-or-leave it,” he said, calling it a bad bill. “It is an effort that is out of step with where the American public and many in the Senate are moving to now — small bipartisan steps to move us forward and make health care more affordable for millions of Americans.”