Murkowski, Collins reflect on bucking the GOP line on health care

After facing intense political pressure on Republican attempts to overhaul health care, two female GOP senators indicated that they had forged a bond in their defiance of both party and president.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, were on the front lines of the health care battle as the GOP attempted to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

Murkowski and Collins, who fought political pressure under a national spotlight, said they knew they had to prioritize their state over their party in a joint interview with CNN’s Dana Bash that aired Friday. Along with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., they cast the decisive votes that halted the GOP effort.

“You want to vote to do the right thing,” Murkowski said. Collins, sitting next to her, echoed her sentiment, noting her obligation to vote for the people of Maine.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, leaves the Senate chamber after a vote on a stripped-down, or “skinny repeal,” version of Obamacare on July 28. (Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

The White House pressured the senators to get back in line. Trump singled out Murkowski in particular the day after she and Collins opposed a procedural vote, saying that she “really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!”

“I am voting for the people of Alaska,” Murkowski said she told the president. The senator also faced a call from Trump (“a very direct call,” she said), and one from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who reportedly threatened department projects in Alaska.

“I remember being so proud of you for saying directly to the president what your obligations were,” Collins said. “And that’s the way I feel too. The people of Maine don’t expect me to be a rubber stamp.”

The Maine Republican said she faced phone calls, meetings and a conversation with Vice President Mike Pence.

President Trump speaks as he meets with Republican senators about health care in the East Room of the White House on June 27, 2017. (Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

For both senators, protecting Planned Parenthood funding played a key role in their decisions. “To me, it was so unfair to single out the one Medicaid provider and say to women in particular you can’t choose which health care provider you want to go to,” Collins said.

On the night of the “skinny repeal” vote — three days after they were the only two defections in the procedural vote — Collins and Murkowski sat next to each other on the Senate floor. Collins cast her vote first, followed later by Murkowski.

“To have that weight, that responsibility knowing that your vote really is that pivotal, it does help to know there is another kindred soul nearby,” Murkowski said.

Before the vote, they spoke with McCain on the Senate floor. The veteran Arizona lawmaker was recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer and had just returned to Congress after recovering from surgery.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, talks to reporters following a Republican caucus meeting in the Capitol on July 27. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“You two are right on this issue,” McCain said, according to Collins, and she said she then knew he would be the third defector on the vote.

She was right. In a dramatic moment, McCain walked up to the floor and held out a thumbs-down, casting a “no” vote that shocked his colleagues.

“He said people might not appreciate what has happened right now as being a positive,” Murkowski recalled. “But time will prove that having a pause, having time out for us to do better, is going to be good for the country.”

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