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Three Republicans senators,John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, held a press conference Thursday saying they cannot vote for the GOP health care bill in its current form. (July 27) AP

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill on July 27, 2017.(Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP)

WASHINGTON — The Senate effort to pass legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare ground to a halt Thursday as Republican leaders scrambled for an endgame and their own members warned that they were in danger of passing a disastrous bill.

The Senate rejected a Republican leadership plan to replace Obamacare on Tuesday night 43-57, with nine Republicans voting against it. And on Wednesday, a clean repeal of the health care law — with a two-year delay to come up with a replacement — failed 45-55. 

That left Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other Republican leaders considering a “skinny repeal” — a few narrow provisions that could secure 50 votes and pass the Senate, opening the door to negotiations with the House over a final bill. 

But even that approach was in jeopardy Thursday night.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., announced at the end of the day that they would not support a “skinny repeal” bill unless they had a guarantee the House will actually start negotiations and not simply pass the Senate bill and send it to President Trump.

Graham told reporters that passing a scaled-down version of a bill that would repeal Obamacare “politically would be the dumbest thing in history.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks during a news conference as Sens. John McCain and Ron Johnson look on at the U.S. Capitol on July 27, 2017. (Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

“I’m sorry that the skinny bill in the Senate doesn’t even come close to our promise of repealing Obamacare,” Johnson said.

Senators were expected to launch an all-night “vote-a-rama,” where an unlimited number of amendments can be offered to the legislation. But as evening fell, McConnell had not yet provided language for a “skinny repeal,” so it was unclear what other amendments would be meaningful.

Graham said that McConnell was telling his members that House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., “prefers to go to the conference,” but Graham said “I want to know are you gonna go to the conference?”

“If I don’t get those assurances I’m a ‘no’ because I’m not gonna vote for a pig in a poke,” Graham said.

Ryan responded Thursday night by saying the House will agree to a conference if that’s the only way to get the Senate to pass a bill. But he said the Senate must vote first on whatever compromise is reached by House and Senate negotiators.

“If moving forward requires a conference committee, that is something the House is willing to do,” Ryan said. “The reality, however, is that repealing and replacing Obamacare still ultimately requires the Senate to produce 51 votes for an actual plan. The House remains committed to finding a solution and working with our Senate colleagues, but the burden remains on the Senate to demonstrate that it is capable of passing something that keeps our promise, as the House has already done.”

“Until the Senate can do that, we will never be able to develop a conference report that becomes law,” Ryan said. “We expect the Senate to act first on whatever the conference committee produces. Obamacare is collapsing and hurting American families. We have to keep working at this until we get the job done.”

Read more:

Senate Republicans clear key hurdle on Obamacare repeal, but the hard part is still ahead

Democrats seize on John McCain’s message in health care fight

Democrats remained worried that Ryan could call his members back in for a special session to vote on the “skinny bill” as-is without a conference. On Thursday afternoon, some members were raising concerns that was the plan after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., warned them to keep their travel plans flexible.

“We now expect Senate Republicans will seek to pass Trumpcare in the dead of night and House Republicans will … jam it through the House as early as tomorrow — with no meaningful consideration, debate or conference,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.

“From what I understand, the skinny bill is ugly to the bone, so I’m all about having a conference,” said Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C. Walker is head of the Republican Study Committee, which has more than 150 Republican members.

But not all lawmakers saw a forced vote as such a bad thing. Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., who is an ally of Trump’s, told reporters that he’d rather go to conference, but if a vote was forced it wouldn’t be such a bad thing and members would eventually rally behind it.

“It would be very disappointing and I think we would pass it. I would be a ‘yes’ because I hate to say it’s better than nothing, but that’s kind of what it would be, better than nothing,” Collins told reporters. “If that’s what’s deemed the only thing that can pass, of course I would vote for it.”

Ryan said Thursday night, “It is now obvious that the only path ahead is for the Senate to pass the narrow legislation that it is currently considering.”

 “This package includes important reforms like eliminating the job-killing employer mandate and the requirement that forces people to purchase coverage they don’t want,” Ryan said. “Still, it is not enough to solve the many failures of Obamacare. Senators have made clear that this is an effort to keep the process alive, not to make law.”

Meanwhile, the debate unfolding on the Senate floor Thursday turned into a series of “show votes” — with both parties trying to put the opposition in a tough position and nobody voting on legislation they actually think will pass.

An amendment by Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines that would create a “single-payer” government-run health care system, a favorite of progressive senators such as Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, failed Thursday afternoon on a 57-0 vote, with 43 Democrats voting “present.” 

The amendment was a political tactic designed to make Democrats vote against a policy popular with their base. A handful of Democrats from conservative states, including Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota voted “no,” but others have said they won’t participate in the health care debate anymore until they see a final version of legislation Republicans intend to offer.

“Sen. Daines doesn’t support the bill, he just wants to get Democrats on the record,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor. “All Republicans are going to vote against it. It’s just pure cynicism, pure politics. It’s not a serious effort to legislate.

Sen. Steve Daines talks to reporters on Capitol Hill on July 27, 2017. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP)

Josh Miller-Lewis, Sanders’ spokesman, said he couldn’t speak for the entire caucus, but he expects many Democrats to vote “present” on amendments until Republicans show them the “skinny repeal” bill.

Meanwhile, Daines defended his amendment — which is the same bill that Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced in the House — as an attempt to get everyone on the record.

“I do not support a single-payer system, but I believe Americans deserve to see us debate different ideas, which is why I am bringing forward this amendment,” Daines said. “It’s time for every senator to go on the record on whether or not they support a single-payer health care system.” 

“As soon as my amendment was put on the Senate floor, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that Democrats wouldn’t debate anymore. Democrats are scared of their own proposal,” he continued.

Contributing: Nicole Gaudiano