Who’s to blame for the government shutdown?

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We are approaching 48 hours since the United States Government shut down. This latest shut down came one year to the day that Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States.

For those of you unsure about how the process works, here’s a brief summary of the situation: if Congress is unable to agree on any spending plans, then no money can be spent by the federal government. If no money can be spent, then the government shuts down. This can often – but not always – mean that non-essential government services are halted and government workers get sent home until such a time that Congress can reach an agreement on spending plans. At that point, normal service can resume within the federal government.

In this case, federal government spending plans failed to pass through the US Senate, having cleared the House of Representatives last week. The Republican Bill failed to attract the support of enough Democrats; there is a whole multitude of reasons why individual Democratic Senators might not have supported the bill, but significant disagreements over funding for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA, also referred ti as “Dreamers”) and the Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP) contributed to the stalemate. In order to pass through the Senate, the spending plans require the support of 60 of the 100 Senators, rather than the usual 50 percent plus one. With 51 Republican Senators currently serving in the chamber, there is no way that the plans can pass without reasonable levels of support from the Democrats.

Political figures have been quick to point the finger of blame over the matter. The shutdown has been described by the President and much of the Washington Republican Party as the “Schumer Shutdown”, after Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) was prepared to let the government shut down if he was not able to get his way in the agreement. The House Republican Conference even dedicated an entire website to describing the numbers of children whose CHIP coverage would expire as a result of Schumer’s shutdown. Schumer fired back, however, calling the shutdown the “Trump Shutdown”, saying that nobody other than the President possessed responsibility. The President, meanwhile, weighed in with comments that the Democrats were putting the military at risk with the shutdown, having previously goaded matters by previously saying on Twitter that the government “needed a good ‘shutdown'”.

So who is really to blame for the shutdown? Is it President Donald Trump, due to his rhetoric and the fact it is he at whom the buck stops on every issue in the US government? Is it Mitch McConnell and the Republicans, for failing to include items in the spending plan which would have attracted the support of Democrats in the Senate? Or is it Chuck Schumer and the Democrats who (aside from those Democratic Senators who supported the plans) were prepared to let the government shut down by not supporting the spending plans?

The fact is that all three are partly responsible. The bill ultimately cannot pass without support from the Democrats; the Republicans cannot pass the spending plans by themselves, and so Schumer is perfectly aware that his party’s inaction will shut down the government. However, the Republicans are the controlling party in Washington, and it is their plans which ultimately will go for approval. In any case, it is the responsibility of both parties in Congress to  work together to reach a bipartisan agreement on federal spending. Meanwhile, the President’s lack of real engagement and stoking of anger on both sides detracts from constructive debate. While the Senate will reconvene on Sunday night in the hope of reaching an agreement on spending, and while many Senators are already working on one, the President’s rhetoric along with both parties’ Senate leadership digging their heels in is not helpful at a time where real bipartisan work needs to be done.

If there is one piece of information to take away from this, however, it is that the current shutdown serves as evidence that controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress does not guarantee a party will be able to get anything done. The White House and both chambers of Congress are under Republican control, and they have not been able to avert a funding gap in spite of this. Indeed, of the seventeen federal funding gaps which have taken place since 1976, six of them have occurred when all three entities were controlled by the same party. A further eight took place when there was a divided Congress, and only three when Congress was controlled by the opposing party to the President. The table below shows the partisan control of the White House and Congress during shutdowns since 1976. Incidentally, George W. Bush is the only President since 1976 to have avoided a shutdown during his time in office.

shutdownsUniform control in Washington is no guarantee that a shutdown can be avoided – as both Democrats and Republicans know.

There is little that can be done at this point until both parties in the Senate are able to reach an agreement about federal government spending plans. Some Senators, including Susan Collins (R-ME) hope that the government will be able to start up again between Sunday night and Monday morning. We can hope that an agreement will be reached later today, but unless the President, McConnell and Schumer can stop placing blame and start placing deals on the table, there is not much hope of this happening tonight.

 

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Why the 2018 Senate Elections may not be so easy for the Democrats

2018 Senate ratingsAs we enter 2018, attention will begin to turn towards the 2018 midterm elections. While one much smaller round of midterms took place in November with Gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, this year’s round is huge. The entire House of Representatives is up for re-election, along with one third of the seats in the Senate, thirty-nine governors’ offices (including three territories), and numerous state and local elections.

Key in these elections is the battle for the control of the Senate and House of Representatives, and the Democrats have their hopes set on taking control of both. Following their victory against Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate Election in December, the Democrats now hold 49 of the 100 seats in the Senate, and need to gain just two seats to take effective control of the upper chamber. They will be hoping to capitalise on much of the unpopularity of the Trump Administration, as well as controversial policies such as the Republican Tax Bill and the scrapping of net neutrality laws.

The Democrats certainly have routes towards their target of reclaiming the Senate: Jeff Flake’s seat in Arizona will be empty in November and Dean Heller looks vulnerable in Nevada, and so these are two Republican-held seats which the Democrats could snipe. If the Democrats are feeling ambitious enough, they could even set their sights on Bob Corker’s open seat in Tennessee; Corker was re-elected in 2012 with more than double the vote count of his Democratic opponent, but stranger things than this have happened.

However, these advantages for the Democrats are a double-edged sword: President Trump still has supporters – as do the tax cuts and net neutrality, which supporters say will be beneficial to those in smaller, less-populated states – and these voters can still stand in the Democrats’ way of reclaiming the Senate, as they did in 2016. Furthermore, the Democrats are also going into the elections on the back foot; they will be defending twenty-five seats, whilst the Republicans will be defending just eight. This means that the scope for any gains by the Democrats is much more limited than the potential Republican pickups. Indeed, whilst states like Nevada and Arizona might be fertile territory for the Democrats to make gains, the Democrats also have plenty of ground to lose, particularly in the Midwest.

The Midwest as a region has been seeing an overall trend towards the Republicans in recent years, and the Democrats are defending Senate seats in Indiana and Missouri, both of which are classified as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Democrats are also defending Senate seats in the Republican-inclined states of Ohio, West Virginia, Montana and North Dakota, as well as in states which Trump carried in 2016, including Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin.

In Missouri, an October poll by Remington Research and the Missouri Scout which pitted the hypothetical scenario of incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill against Republican Attorney General of Missouri Josh Hawley gave Hawley a three-point lead. With ten months to go until November, a single poll from two months ago by itself doesn’t tell us much, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the Democrats are destined to lose in Missouri. However, if the Democrats are hoping to take control of the Senate, a three-point Republican lead in a Democrat-held Senate seat is a reminder that the Democrats still need to hold their own ground as well as make gains. In any case, this is an early indication that the Democrats’ path to regaining control of the Senate may not be as clear as they might hope.

A CNN poll from December indicates that the number of voters leaning towards the Democrats in November is at at least a twenty-year high. However, like in the 2016 presidential election, exactly where these voters are could matter more than how many are pledging their votes to the Democrats. The Democrats’ win in December’s Alabama Senate election and sweeping wins in Virginia in November prove that the party is capable of pulling off great achievements in different areas of the US, they still have a long way to go to show they are capable of attracting enough voters in every part of the country, particularly in the Midwest.

Over the coming months, I shall watch the polls closely and update my blog with my thoughts.

Ratings are correct as of 2nd January 2018.

Was the Virginia Gubernatorial Election a rejection of Trumpism?

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The Democrats have reason for celebration following their twin victories in the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia on Tuesday night.

Whilst the New Jersey governorship was a pickup from the Republicans by a considerable margin of thirteen points, the big story of the night was the Virginia Gubernatorial Election. Incumbent Democrat Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam beat Republican challenger Ed Gillespie by a margin of nearly nine points, with a numerical lead of just over 230,000 votes. Elsewhere, the Democrats very nearly swept to power in the Virginia House of Delegates – the state’s lower chamber – picking up fourteen seats to tie the House of Delegates at 50-50. The Republicans previously held 66 of the 100 House seats.

The results of Tuesday’s elections in Virginia are a sign of the furthering political change in the state: Virginia is trending towards the Democrats. Increased voter registration and suburban growth in Virginia’s northern counties and Washington, DC suburbs – Fairfax, Loudon and Prince William Counties – has pushed the state’s Democratic voter base up, while the rural, small town and farming Republican vote in the western and south-western areas of the state now hold less of an impact in swaying election results.

What does this election result mean for the parties? For the Democrats, the election represents a defeat for Trumpism at the first midterm hurdle of his Presidency. Gillespie had been linked to President Trump throughout the campaign,  and so Democrats in Virginia felt as if they had pushed back against the political force which the President stands for. For the Republicans, there was an outside chance of winning Virginia’s Governor’s Mansion, but they were always going to be on the back foot. Virginia is seeing a trend towards the Democrats that has been ongoing since at least 2008. The state is still by all means winnable for the Republicans – just as a state such as Iowa or Ohio is still winnable for the Democrats. However, with these trends come the reasonable expectations that the Democrats will continue to claim victory in more elections at all levels in Virginia.

So how much of a defeat for the Republicans or for Trumpism was Tuesday’s result? Taking a look at the election results from Tuesday’s gubernatorial election alongside the results from the 2016 Presidential Election (using data from the New York Times), we can see that the state voted for the most part the same way on Tuesday that it voted in 2016. The only change that’s noticeable is perhaps the solidifying of the divide between rural Republican areas and urban Democratic areas. Only two counties that backed Trump in 2016 backed Northam on Tuesday – and even then this was by slim margins.

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With regards to the argument that the result of the election was a defeat for Trumpism, we can suggest that Trumpism was probably not that popular in Virginia to begin with; while many of Virginia’s Republican Delegates at the state level made up remnants of the Tea Party,  Trump’s campaign and messages were arguably never intended to appeal to Democrat-leaning voters in states such as Virginia, where there is a growing concentration of suburban, middle-class, college educated professionals. Trump’s gains in the 2016 election were confined for the most part to the Rust Belt and the Midwest; areas where his focus on blue collar jobs was more warmly received. When Virginia rejected Trump back in 2016, they did so by a margin of just over five points or 212,000 votes – not too dissimilar to Tuesday’s margins. Virginia may have rejected Trumpism on Tuesday, but they also rejected it in 2016.

There is probably a long paper which can be written on the subject of political change within Virginia, but that will have to wait for another time. In any case, the Democrats’ success at different levels throughout the state indicates the changing demographics of Virginia politics in the Democrats’ favour. The campaign also shows us the relationship between Donald Trump and the Republican Party: Trump effectively denounced Gillespie as soon as the race was called for Northam, showing the President feels he owes no loyalty to the Republican party or its candidates. Thus, if the Virginia Gubernatorial Election was in fact a defeat for the cult of Trumpism, it cannot truly be called a defeat for the whole Republican Party, particularly in the case of those campaigns and candidates not connected to the President.

Ultimately, while the Democrats can enjoy a good win in Virginia, this win is probably not going not be as much of a setback to the Republicans as many think it will be. However, there will be many frayed nerves within the party between now and 2018 as Republicans in Congress wishing to stand for re-election will need to decide whether to stand with the President or keep their distance from him. Meanwhile, the result will put Democrat campaigners in a good mood ahead of Alabama’s special Senate Election on December 12th.

 

Virginia and New Jersey Gubernatorial elections: Trump’s first midterm challenge

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Tomorrow, Donald Trump will face the first major midterm challenge of his Presidency: gubernatorial elections are taking place in the states of New Jersey and Virginia on November 7th.

In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie – one of the President’s longest-standing supporters and himself a former Presidential candidate – is term-limited. The Republicans have selected the sitting Lieutenant Governor, Kim Guadagno, to run in his place. Meanwhile, the Democrats have selected Phil Murphy, former US Ambassador to Germany and a former finance director for the Democratic National Committee; this election is Murphy’s first run for public office.

While New Jersey is home to large areas of Rust Belt-like industrial communities which – on the surface – might seem like potential areas for the Republicans to pick up, there is little evidence to suggest a growing Republican trend in the state at this time. Hillary Clinton carried the Garden State a year ago with a fourteen-point lead over President Trump. Governor Christie’s personal popularity has been consistently abysmal for most of his second term, and this will not help the Republicans with their hopes for holding on to the Governor’s Mansion for another four years. Indeed, polling has given Murphy a lengthy string of double-digit leads. The New Jersey gubernatorial race looks like a fairly likely Democratic pick-up; I don’t think there’s a huge amount to be discussed here at this time.

However, it is the Virginia Gubernatorial Election which has captured the most attention of the two gubernatorial races taking place tomorrow. In Virginia, incumbent governors are limited to serving a single term in office, although they can serve non-consecutive terms. As such, incumbent Governor Terry McAullife is not able to seek re-election. Incumbent Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam is the Democratic candidate, while the Republicans have fielded Ed Gillespie, who has held a number of positions within the Republican Party and who was the unsuccessful Republican candidate in Virginia’s Senate election in 2014.

Virginia as a state has seen some interesting political change in recent years: it voted for the Democrats like the rest of the Southern states until it was captured by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, from which point it almost always backed the Republican Presidential candidate until 2008; the changing demographic of the state, particularly the strengthening of the Democratic vote in the Washington, DC suburbs in the north of the state, has returned Virginia largely to the Democrat fold.

Although Virginia looks increasingly like a Democratic state, victory in the state’s Gubernatorial Election is within reach of both parties: RealClearPolitics is giving Northam an average lead of just two points; this is lower than many of the poll leads given to Hillary Clinton the day before the 2016 Presidential Election.

Not only is this race close, tensions and sentiments have been running high during the campaign, and the race for the Virginia Governor’s Mansion has been seen as particularly dirty. One particularly offensive attack ad against Gillespie by the Latino Victory Campaign depicted a truck driven by a Gillespie supporter chasing and – it is implied – mowing down Latino and minority children. The Republican campaign, meanwhile, has been attempting to blame the policies of the McAullife-Northam governorship for a rise in gang violence within the state.

The race in Virginia is too close to make any real prediction; it probably remains the Democrats’ to lose, but don’t rule out a Trump-style Republican underdog win here.

So what are these two gubernatorial elections going to tell us about the President’s power, or even the Republican Party’s control of America? In the first instance, not a whole lot: while Virginia represents the front-line of the battle between President Trump and the Republicans’ hope for political control across America, we still have another year to go until the 2018 midterm elections which will determine the control of Congress for the next two years. What these races will show us in the immediate term is if the Republicans can make any serious headway in Virginia, a state which is increasingly Democratic-supporting territory. Democrats in Virginia have tried to paint Ed Gillespie as being close to the President, but if Gillespie can pull off a victory in Virginia tomorrow, then the win will re-affirm Trump’s ability to gain new ground outside of traditional Republican and Rust Belt heartlands. If Northam can hold the state, however, it will probably solidify the Democrats’ claim to the political thought of Virginia, and questions may be raised about the Republicans’ chances of picking up much-needed Senate seats next year.

At this point, we are still less than a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, and so we can expect a lot of discussion after tomorrow’s elections about how the next twelve months will shape up for the Republicans, both in the White House and in Congress.

 

Why Jeff Flake’s retirement is bad news for Republicans

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Yesterday, Jeff Flake announced that he would be retiring from the United States Senate in 2018. This has derailed a post which I had been writing about the upcoming gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, but that will have to wait until next time.

Of course, this story is about more than just a Senator announcing his retirement; it is also a reflection on President Donald Trump’s relationship with the Senate Republican Party, as well as the moderates within his party.

Thus far, Flake is the second GOP Senator after Tennessee’s Bob Corker not only to announce their retirement in 2018, but also to couple the announcement with a scathing criticism of the President. Flake has long been a vocal opponent of the President, and yesterday said he could not be complicit or silent with regards to the actions of the President 

Jeff Flake’s retirement from the Senate is bad news for the Republicans on two fronts, both within Arizona and within the Senate. With his retirement, the Senate Republican Party further looks like it is being purged of Trump’s opponents; indeed, Flake expressed concern yesterday of his party drifting to the right at the expense of the moderates. Trump in turn has not been complimentary to Flake during his time in office – including referring to the Senator as “toxic” – while Flake was a loud voice of opposition to the perceived increase of Trumpification in both Republican Party and in the Senate.

Had Flake decided to run for re-election to a for a second term, he would have faced the risk of being challenged in the primaries by a pro-Trump GOP candidate. Trump had certainly expressed the wish to see Flake be primaried, and had strongly hinted atendorsing Flake’s foremost primary challenger, Arizona State Senator Dr Kelli Ward. Indeed, polling has shown Flake to be trailing Ward by a sizeable margin. Even if Flake ran again, there would be no guarantee of him winning his Primary, and Trump would probably relish the prospect of another supporter in the Senate – something he has few of – especially after the Primary defeat of Luther Strange in Alabama last month.

However, an open Senate seat in Arizona is still a huge cause of concern for Trump, and it would be premature of the President to take any pleasure in Flake’s retirement. In spite of Trump’s dislike for Flake, Republican in-fighting in Arizona, along with the candidacy of a pro-Trump senate candidate in an increasingly marginal state would open up Flake’s Senate Seat to being captured by the Democrats. Arizona’s longer-term trend towards the Democrats has been the subject of much discussion; Arizona was a state to watch ahead of last year’s Presidential election with great potential of being flipped to the Democratic column by Hillary Clinton, and is largely viewed as a swing state today. Flake, meanwhile, only won his 2012 election with a margin of three percent of the vote. With Flake’s retirement, the prospect of Arizona’s Senate seat being captured by the Democrats is only made more likely.

I don’t know if Jeff Flake will be the last Republican Senator to announce their retirement ahead of the 2018 elections, but he certainly will not be the last to step up his criticism of the President. The Senate Republican Party has long been a problem for Trump as there are few Republican Senators whom he can count on as allies, and Flake’s retirement presents a great risk to the Republican control of the Senate. The Democrats may be entering the 2018 Senate Elections on the back foot, but if the Republicans lose just three seats then they will lose control of the Senate to the Democrats. Such is Trump’s lack of support in the Senate that – even with fifty-two Republican Senators – the President can ill-afford to lose any Republican votes. One fewer Republican with whom he can try and work – if he can stop attacking them – will make his job much more difficult than it already is.

 

The Alabama Senate Primary is a blow to the GOP establishment

Yesterday, voters in Alabama took part in a primary runoff election to determine who would be the Republican candidate for Senate. A special election for Alabama’s Senate seat is due to take place on the 12th of December in order to fill the seat left vacant when Jeff Sessions was appointed to the role of Attorney General in the Trump cabinet.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange had been appointed by the then-governor, Robert Bentley, to fill the vacancy left by Sessions until the special election could take place. “Big Luther” – as he is known, standing at six feet nine inches – received the President’s backing fairly early in the campaign. However, Strange’s quest to be elected in his own right came to an end last night, when he was defeated in the runoff by Roy Moore, the former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.

Moore is an evangelical Christian and very socially conservative. As Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Moore has had a fairly tumultuous time within the role, having been appointed twice only to find himself out on both occasions; Moore was first removed from the post for refusing to take down a Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama Supreme Court, and resigned from his second stint after refusing to recognise the US Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage. He is also widely seen as an opponent to the LGBT movement, stating in 2005 that homosexual conduct should be illegal.

So what does this outcome tell us about the politics of Alabama, and what does this mean for President Trump and the Republican leadership in Washington?

Firstly, Strange was seen as the ‘establishment’ candidate, having gained the support of both the President as well as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. With the Congressional approval rating languishing at 16%, having the endorsement of the congressional leadership is probably not going to help Republican candidates succeed, particularly not in those states which view the leadership with a certain amount of enmity.  Strange also possibly suffered from his connection to then-Governor Bentley, whose embroilment in scandals forced his resignation earlier this year. Moore may have had his run-ins with the political establishment, but perhaps that tells voters in Alabama that he’s prepared to stand up for what he and his voters believe in, rather than following the will of the leadership.

Secondly – and perhaps more importantly – it is a reminder that conservative grassroots voters are still a force to be reckoned with. The Tea Party may no longer be as big a factor within the Republican Party these days, but the anti-establishment ideals held at the grassroots level are still there, and will continue to influence the outcome of elections. Senator Strange may have had the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC behind him – along with all the money that brought – but grassroots voters in 2017 can no longer be won by throwing money at political campaigns.

With a slate of Senate seats being targeted by the Republicans in 2018, Mitch McConnell will need to make sure candidates are able to connect with voters, particularly those with concerns about the congressional leadership. The Republicans are on the back foot going into 2018, and only hold eight of the thirty-three Senate seats being contested. The GOP leadership will want to avoid being seen as too distant from the grassroots’ voters concerns, particularly in states such as Ohio, Indiana, Missouri and West Virginia, which may be among their highest-priority targets.

As a firebrand conservative Senator, Roy Moore would likely be a thorn in Donald Trump’s side. Before then, however, Moore – as the Republican nominee for Senate – will face Democrat Doug Jones in the special election on December 12th. President Trump had previously said that, if Moore was the candidate, then he would throw open the Alabama senate race to the Democrats. While this seems unlikely, we will have to wait until December to see how true this is; I’m sure the Democrats would love the chance for a national election comeback in the Heart of Dixie.

The Trumpcare Senate Bill was always doomed to failure


Following weeks and months of wrangling in Congress, it now seems that the long-awaited Republican re-write of the Affordable Care Act may now have stalled permanently.

The re-write – essentially a repeal of Obamacare – and known itself as Trumpcare – was one of the cornerstones of President Donald Trump’s manifesto. However, the Republicans’ wafer-thin Senate majority was brought down last night after Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas announced their intention to vote against the Bill. With 52 Senators out of 100, Senate Majority Mitch McConnell can only afford to lose two votes. However, Senators Lee and Moran join Susan Collins of Maine and Rand Paul of Kentucky who had previously stated their opposition, bringing down the GOP’s majority.

The events of last night throw into doubt the future of Trumpcare, with a tweet from the President on Tuesday morning suggesting that the battle for repeal of Obamacare had been lost for the time being. However, the success of the the bill in the Senate Chamber was in doubt as soon as it passed through the House of Representatives.

Back in March, The Hill reported that seven Republican Senators – including Collins, Lee and Paul – had expressed opposition to the bill, with more than a dozen others expressing concern about all or part of the bill. Senators Rob Portman of Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska had expressed concern since the beginning over the rolling back of Medicaid expansion. Indeed, data from The Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that the residents of many key Republican states have benefited from the expansion of Medicaid; Kentucky has seen a huge 106% increase in Medicaid recipients since the expansion was rolled out – almost double the 59% increase in recipients in West Virginia, which is still strong for the Democrats at the state level.

GOP Senators have a huge range of interests to look out for in their home states connected to the AHA repeal, including the impact of possible Medicaid withdrawal on residents, concern over the heroin-opioid epidemic in their states, numbers of residents with pre-existing conditions, and their own re-election prospects. Whatever the Senators’ reasons for opposition may be, however, these issues were always of more immediate concern to Senators than giving their support to Trumpcare. It is in issues such as Trumpcare where the Republican majority in the Senate looks noticeably flimsy. With the Republicans on the back foot heading into the 2018 midterm elections, Trump’s grip on Washington could be loosened further.

Whether the outcome of this collapse is a re-write of the act or a simple defeat of the bill in the Senate Chamber will remain to be seen. However, many in both parties want to see a working replacement to Obamacare being introduced: one which allows existing levels of Medicaid coverage, but also allows the freedom of choice and lower premiums which Obamacare did not offer. However, what is also clear is that many Republicans are not prepared to vote to repeal Obamacare just for the sake of it. The apparent loss of the Trumpcare vote also suggests that – even beyond the repeal bill – the President cannot count on the support of his Senators.