Senate Republicans cleared an important hurdle early Thursday in the legislative process to repeal the Affordable Care Act, capping a marathon seven-hour voting session by passing a budget resolution.
It was a key step for Republicans as they move to undo major parts of President Obama's signature health care law. The 51-48 vote came down along party lines and paves the way for a vote on a repeal bill that could come as early as next month. The measure allows the GOP to pass final legislation in the Senate with a 51-vote simple majority instead of the 60 votes required for most legislation. Republicans currently control the chamber with a 52-seat majority.
Vice President–elect Mike Pence tweeted out congratulations to his fellow party members on Capitol Hill, calling it a "first step to repeal/replace ObamaCare."
The resolution is a blueprint that will now be sent to committees, instructing them to write a budget with certain parameters.
"This resolution will set the stage for true legislative relief from 'Obamacare' Americans have long demanded, while ensuring a stable transition in which those with insurance will not lose access to health care coverage. This will allow us to move step by step on a new set of reforms, listening carefully to the advice of millions affected," Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Budget Committee, said before the final votes.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the ranking member on the committee, responded, "The passage of this budget resolution will allow Republicans to come back to the floor of the Senate with a budget reconciliation package which will repeal the ACA with a simple majority, and if they do that, 30 million Americans will lose their health care, with many thousands dying as a result."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer took to Twitter to blast the measure, saying tens of millions of Americans will lose their health care if the ACA is repealed.
The late-night session included a number of symbolic gestures. It was chance for Democrats to talk about the merits of "Obamacare" and to try to force Republicans to cast uncomfortable votes. Democrats submitted more than 150 amendments that would have included rules such as letting young people stay on their parents' health plans and keeping protections for Medicaid.
The chamber turned feisty at points. Sanders yelled during one exchange, "I will yield to my friends if they will tell me now what their replacement is. How many of those 30 million people are going die? What’s your plan to cover them?"
In the end, all Democratic senators voted against the final passage from their desks, sitting and standing together in solidarity and each giving a line about why they were voting no. “Because there is no replacement plan,” many said.
One amendment that proved to be a flashpoint was a measure from five Republican senators to push back the date for lawmakers to complete legislative language to repeal the law. But shortly after 9:30 p.m., Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, withdrew their amendment. The original deadline is not binding, and the amendment's would not have been either, and the senators basically said as much when they withdrew the amendment.
"We realize that that is not a real date, that is a placeholder," Corker said on the floor. "We understand that everyone here understands the importance of doing it right, giving Tom Price, the new HHS [Department of Health and Humans Services] person, the time to weigh in and help us make this work in the new appropriate way."
"We now have assurances from leadership that certainly is their intent, that this date is not set in stone but in the fact the earliest that we can do it, but we can take longer and we believe that it might," Portman said.
If the amendment had passed, it would have illustrated Republicans' internal disagreement over how quickly to repeal "Obamacare." The amendment's withdrawal saved party leaders some embarrassment.
Republicans voted against an amendment to maintain protections for people with existing conditions. Republicans have repeatedly said that they would keep that protection in the final legislation.
Democrats brought up President-elect Donald Trump throughout the night.
"He said today, 'Pharma gets away with murder,' and he's right!" Sanders exclaimed, referring to comments Trump made at a news conference on Wednesday.
But Democrats also simply ticked through — and made speeches about — parts of the law they believe in.
"In the Affordable Care Act we made sure contraception, preventive care services, health care screenings, mammograms were affordable and accessible, and if we take that away, these families are left without the basic care they need to survive. If you love women and you love your mothers and daughters and wives, please do not unwind the Affordable Care Act," a visibly tired and emotional Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said late into the night.
In the end, not one amendment from either party passed — yet another reminder of the difficulty of getting to 60 votes in the closely divided chamber.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.