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This Republican Senator Could Spell Doom for the Obamacare Repeal Movement

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Most Republicans recognize that their one shot at repealing Obamacare came and went in 2012. But many reports suggest that Republicans would nevertheless send President Obama a repeal bill (or a bill gutting Obamacare) if they take the Senate in November, if only to assuage conservatives.

Because previous Obamacare repeal bills have failed along party lines, everyone takes it as a given that every Republican in Congress would still vote to repeal the law. But there are good reasons to doubt whether that’s still true. In fact, it’s feasible that Republicans could claim control over both houses of Congress next year and still be unable to pass bills that would repeal or hobble the law.

Here’s how Maine Senator Susan Collins, a Republican, responded when asked by Portland’s NBC affiliate whether she’d vote to repeal or defund Obamacare.

“You know at this point, I think we’re past that,” she said. “I think it would’ve been much better if there’d been a bipartisan bill crafted in 2008 that had provisions that both parties could agree on, such as prohibiting insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions. I think at this stage what we should do is a number of bills that would fix flaws in Obamacare. I think we’re past the point of being able to repeal the bill altogether. And as you point out, there are some good provisions in the bill, as well as some that have increased the cost of health care.”

The question of defunding the law is crucial, because unlike full repeal, a bill eliminating the laws financing provisions could theoretically circumvent a filibuster. In other words, you can defund Obamacare with only 51 votes in the Senate. But Republican leaders might not be able to muster 51 votes if they end up with a 51-seat majority, and Collins is their 51st vote.

Collins didn’t explicitly announce that she’d vote against defunding or repealing the Affordable Care Act. And her spokesman didn’t respond to an email seeking clarification. But if, as she claims, her position is that Congress should “fix flaws in Obamacare,” joining other Republicans on a bill to destroy the law would amount to a significant reversal.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell probably can’t afford to lose her vote, though. If Republicans control the Senate next year, and can’t even pass symbolic legislation along these lines, it’d be a pretty big embarrassment. And as it happens, projecting forward from today, a 51-seat Republican majority is the likeliest outcome of this year’s midterms.