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Sen. McCain's Recovery From Blood Clot Surgery Threatens GOP Health Care Vote


Republican senators were already having a tough time getting their health care bill passed. Over the weekend, it got more complicated. Arizona Republican Senator John McCain's office announced he had surgery to remove a 2-inch blood clot from above his left eye. Now, the senator is recovering in Arizona and is not expected back in Washington for at least a week or two, and that means the Senate's plan to vote on their bill this week is delayed.

NPR's Susan Davis joins us now with the latest from the Capitol. And before we get to the bill, can you give us an update on the health of Senator McCain?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Sure. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke to the senator this morning, and he discussed him on the Senate floor. This is what he had to say.


MITCH MCCONNELL: Our friend from Arizona is a pretty tough guy, as we all know. He'll be back with us soon, and we will continue to offer him best wishes for a speedy recovery in the meantime.

DAVIS: Audie, President Trump also spoke about John McCain today. He described him appreciatively as being one of D.C.'s crusty voices, and he said he was hoping to get him back in Washington soon in particular because he needs his vote. Now, what we know about McCain according to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix - as you said, he's recovering back at home. And the next step is they're waiting on the tests of a pathology report. And once they have that, they'll know if any additional care is necessary and if he could potentially be kept away from Washington for some time.

CORNISH: Now, to talk more about that legislation, John McCain has been a critic, talking about how it was written in private by party leaders, also criticized the bill's Medicaid cuts and how that could affect his state of Arizona. So are Republican leaders actually confident that they could have counted on his vote?

DAVIS: The one thing they know for sure is that they will lose without it. McCain has problems with the legislation. He's talked about that a lot. But he was expected to be a yes vote on that critical procedural vote they were planning to have this week that requires 50 votes just to let the Senate begin the debate on the bill. There are already two public noes on that vote, as we well know - Rand Paul of Kentucky and Susan Collins of Maine - which means McConnell has no votes to spare.

Now, after they clear that hurdle and start debating the bill, McCain says he plans to offer a lot of amendments to the bill, particularly affecting Medicaid. And he hasn't promised to be a yes on final passage of the bill either. Now, of course this could all become moot if one more Republican senator in the meantime comes forward and says they're going to be a no on the bill. If they get three Republican noes, that means that the bill is over and the debate is over before but it even begins.

CORNISH: And then the other Arizona senator, Republican Jeff Flake, is also in the news today for different reasons. Politico reported that the White House has met with potential Republican primary challengers to run against Flake next year. How unusual is this?

DAVIS: It is highly unusual, and I can tell you Mitch McConnell does not support this kind of infighting. You know, a couple - earlier this year, a Trump-aligned super PAC also planned to target Nevada Republican Senator Dean Heller with an ad campaign. He's undecided on the health care bill. And that made Senate Republicans very unhappy. At a meeting at the White House last month, they personally appealed to the president not to use these kind of hardball tactics. The group eventually did announce they weren't going to run the ads.

I think you can expect a similar pushback in Flake's defense. It is the official policy of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee to back incumbents in primaries. There are no exceptions to this rule. But I think with Flake, it's also a bit personal. It's not just about health care. As you recall, he was a very frequent critic of the president during the campaign.

CORNISH: What else should we look forward this August recess?

DAVIS: Well, you know, they had delayed the August recess by two weeks in order to try and get some work done, particularly this health care bill, so it's a little bit up in the air. The leader has said the Senate will also take up a defense bill and continue working their way through President Trump's nominations. This unexpected delay, though, also, it's important to remember, gives opponents to the health care bill more time to try and defeat it and in particular to keep pressure on Republican senators who are undecided. Every Democratic senator is opposed to the bill, and the delay has not stopped activists from rallying outside the Capitol all this week.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Susan Davis at the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.

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