Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, proved an old adage wrong on Tuesday. Sometimes, it turns out, you can beat something with nothing.
After weeks of negotiations toward a Senate bill to repeal Obamacare, Kentucky Sen. McConnell was at an impasse. He couldn't amass a majority for any of several competing proposals to replace Obamacare. Nor could he attract a majority for "repeal and delay," a punt that would declare the program dead, but leave it in place for two years.
So he demanded that senators agree to open debate on … no bill at all.
That write-your-own-ending offer won 50 votes, enough to move forward. The Senate will now spend the rest of the week searching for anything a majority can agree to.
One possibility is a rather grotesque alternative called "skinny repeal," a bill that would repeal a few unpopular parts of Obamacare — mainly the individual and employer mandates — but leave the rest intact. But most Republicans don't like that idea much, either.
If this seems like an imprecise, even cavalier approach to remaking the nation's healthcare system, that's because it is. In a fiery speech on the Senate floor, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), bearing stitches on his forehead from cancer surgery, said he thought McConnell's improvisational approach wouldn't work — "and probably shouldn't."
How did McConnell build a majority in favor of nothing in particular? Easy: He announced that any Republican who voted no would be labeled as voting to preserve the whole of Obamacare — anathema to their conservative constituents.
Proving, perhaps, that the skills McConnell perfected in opposition to Obama, when Republicans became known as the "Party of No," could still come in handy, even in a governing majority.
One other constant: President Trump continued to promise that whatever the Senate passes will be "great" — no matter what it turns out to be.
"We're going to come up with something really spectacular," Trump promised. But, like McConnell, he couldn't say exactly what.