This vote is the hurdle that senate rules require before a controversial bill can be brought to the floor for debate: a procedural vote known as "proceed to debate." If that fails, then they can't move it along toward passage.
Ordinarily, for important and controversial bills, it requires 60 votes to proceed to debate (because of the filibuster rules). However, since Republicans are trying to pass this repeal and/or replace Obamacare under the arcane process known as "budget resolution" rules, it only takes a simple majority to proceed to debate.
However, that process is only available if the parliamentarian rules that passing the bill will not chnge the budget aspect of the bill. Some of the measures that got put in the senate bill (defunding Planned Parenthood, for example) were ruled out by the parliamentarian under these rules. So I think they're scrapping that and planning to vote on the House bill, perhaps with amendments.
So, with all that jockeying for starting position, here's what happened in the senate on Tuesday. What they voted on was whether to proceed to debate on the House bill that repeals and replaces Obamacare. They were told that, among the options to be debated would be (1) a simple vote for or against the House bill, with amendments allowable; (2) a vote to simply repeal Obamacare; (3) a so-called "skinny" repeal of Obamacare, meaning just voting to expunge certain parts of it without a total repeal -- parts such as the individual mandate, the requirement for employers to offer health insurance, or the pre-existing conditions guarantee.
The vote was 50 to 50 with Republican senators Susan Collins (ME) and Lisa Murkowski (AK) voting no along with all 48 Democrats. Then Vice President Pence came in to cast the tie-breaking vote to pass the procedural vote and advance to debate.
This does not necessarily mean that a Republican health care bill will pass. Some people, like McCain, voted yes to debate; but would vote no on any of the bills as they are at present. They still have lots of hurdles to get over and as many as 6 or 8 more possible "no" votes to convert to actually pass a bill.
But that's not the whole story -- nor the drama. It was announced that Sen. John McCain, who last week had surgery to remove a highly malignant brain tumor, was flying in from his home in Arizona to cast his vote -- and that he would be addressing the senate afterward.
Sen. McCain was met with a standing ovation and an outpouring of what seemed genuine affection and respect when he entered the chamber. Having cast his "yes" vote, he then addressed his colleagues with an impassioned speech about the honor it has been for him to serve with his colleagues. He reminded them that the senate is known as "the greatest deliberative body" in the world -- and how it has worked when there was bipartisan cooperation to get things done for the American people.
But then he said he wasn't sure that the senate deserved to be called that lately. He exhorted his colleagues to return to "regular order" and come together to work out compromises in a health care bill that will work for the American people. He called on the Chair of the Health Committee Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and ranking member Patty Murray (D-WA) to hold open hearings and work out a compromise bill instead of having to vote on a bill crafted in secret (a pretty strong rebuke of Mitch McConnell).
He said that he was casting his vote as a "yes" to move to debate; but, he said, he would not vote for the bill itself as it is now.
It was one of the finest hours of this old maverick, whom I have had at times greatly respected and at other times been vehemently opposed to. This time, I felt respect, and I admired his stand. It's the kind of leadership that's been missing.
Good luck in your fight against this cancer, Old Man. In fact, your fight against both cancers: the glioblastoma in your brain and the bill your Republican colleagues want to pass that will take away health care from tens of millions of Americans.
How ironic. . . . if McCain has made this arduous trip back to D.C. and only winds up helping Republicans deprive Americans, who can't afford it, of the kind of health care that he has just had the benefit of (brain surgery and upcoming radiation and chemotherapy).