You had to be there.
After days of uncertainty about whether Senate Republicans would vote to begin debating a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, it boiled down to a few tense minutes on the Senate floor.
As the vote started shortly after 2 p.m. ET, 30 reporters crammed into the small hallway in front of the chamber, waiting for Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s dramatic arrival on the elevator. McCain had been out of Washington, D.C., since his recent diagnosis of brain cancer, but returned Tuesday to vote on the health care bill.
Reporters’ heads swiveled toward the doors each time they opened, and when they weren’t doing that, they split their attention between watching the Senate floor action live-streamed on their phones and what they could glimpse through the chamber’s doors a few feet away.
Inside, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price watched from near the entrance to the floor, talking with senators as they came over to him. Seema Verma, who heads the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, made a brief appearance too.
When voting started, protesters in the gallery chanted “Kill the bill, not us!” — the sound of their shouts bouncing off marble steps to the floor below. They were dressed in white lab coats or in white clergy collars; all were dragged off by U.S. Capitol Police.
Some had emergency bail money stashed in their pockets and emergency phone numbers written on their arms, just in case they were taken into custody without their phones. Police blocked reporters from talking to the protesters before their ejection from the gallery.
As “yes” votes piled up from Republican senators, the outcome looked clear. “That’s it, they have the votes, they have the votes,” reporters murmured.
Then Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) voted “no,” joining Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). One more “no” vote from a Republican could defeat the GOP’s latest effort to repeal Obamacare.
Then in rapid succession — bam-bam-bam — Twitter erupted with announcements that Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) would vote “yes.”
By 2:45 p.m., the Republicans had 48 votes to proceed and only two senators left to vote. One was McCain. The other was Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who had been hesitant about the bill for weeks.
Johnson strode into the chamber after almost everyone else had voted and spent five tense minutes conferencing with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the rear of the chamber. Hundreds of pairs of eyes were laser-focused on the two men, standing close to each other, waving their hands and bobbing their heads.
Finally McCain appeared, accompanied by his wife, briskly walking 15 feet to the floor. One senator after another shook his hand and hugged him. Within minutes, both Johnson’s and McCain’s votes were known. The Republicans had 50 votes.
Afterward, McCain spoke simply and powerfully from the Senate floor about the need for bipartisan cooperation to fix health care. “Our health care insurance system is a mess. We all know it, those who support Obamacare and those who oppose it. Something has to be done,” he said.
Vice President Mike Pence reminded the chamber to keep quiet, seconds before he cast the tie-breaking vote. The gallery, finally empty of protesters, heeded his words.