The forced postponement of a Senate vote on repealing and replacing Obamacare magnifies Donald Trump's struggle to demonstrate his fitness to serve as president.
His repeated assaults on the health care insurance law and his pledge to get rid of it have dominated his domestic agenda to the point that his entire administration has been stalemated, only five months into his White House tenure.
His inability to capitalize on Republican control in both houses of Congress has backfired to the extent that is has raised public support for embattled Obamacare in the major opinion polls. More Americans now prefer keeping the Affordable Care Act as is or simply tweaking it.
The issue of repeal, once the primary political battering ram of the Grand Old Party, has withered to the point that some conservatives mockingly refer to the current GOP proposals as "Obamacare lite," and that has kept a handful of Senate Republicans from supporting the health care bill. Even Mr. Trump's personal lobbying has failed so far to produce enough votes to bring the matter to the Senate floor.
As a result, Senate and House Republicans look likely to be returning home for the July 4 recess empty-handed on the matter, and obliged to defend or explain the failure to chalk up a first major legislative victory for the party and for Mr. Trump.
Despite his claim that "Obamacare is dead," for the time being at least it remains the framework for whatever reforms the congressional Republicans still hope to achieve. Their tinkering is largely driven not by some altruistic motive but out of fear of backlash from recipients facing loss of coverage in the reshaping.
The latest analysis of the Congressional Budget Office, the so-called "scoring" of proposed changes, has concluded that 22 million more Americans would go uninsured under the Senate plan, just a million or so fewer than would be deprived under the terms of the House version passed earlier this year, under an arm-twisting second try by House Speaker Paul Ryan. Mr. Trump has unhelpfully labeled that version "mean."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been the driving force for the Senate version, now called the Better Care Reconcilation Act of 2017, with no reconciliation with the opposing Democrats. Currently, he is said to be trying feverishly to rejigger the legislation in the hope that the CBO will produce yet another analysis reducing the estimate of recipients who would lose coverage.
Mr. McConnell's inability to corral 50 votes to bring it to a vote with Vice President Mike Pence standing by to break a 50-50 tie, or 51 without him, required the latest rescue operation, and it now appears the majority leader is a ship captain gripping a broken rudder.
A Senate trio of dissatisfied Republicans, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, were soon joined by Ron Johnson of Wisconsin against the McConnell plan. When a fifth, Dean Heller of Nevada, up for re-election next year, also indicated his opposition, a pro-Trump political action committee unleashed advertising against him. Mr. Heller said he would reconsider, and the ads ceased. But the tactic did not sit well with some other Republican senators, who complained to Mr. McConnell that the squeeze on Heller be abandoned.
On the Democratic side, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer has repeatedly expressed willingness to negotiate on replacing Obamacare, while continuing to doubt the sincerity of either Mr. Trump or Mr. McConnell. For now, Mr. Schumer appears to hold the upper hand in painting the Republicans as killers of Obamacare, as the public-opinion pendulum has swung from a negative to a positive assessment of the health care law.
Many years earlier, GOP efforts to trim or modify Social Security benefits raised cries of outrage among poor and middle-class voters. Now the Republican campaign to repeal and replace Obamacare has aroused similar laments.
In the end, the Republican insistence on a huge tax cut for the wealthy as the bottom-line product of dismantling Obamacare may prove to be the strongest card in the Democrats' hand as they try to maintain public opposition to replacing Obamacare in any radical way.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is email@example.com.