Wisconsin senator's health care stance welcomed back home (copy) (copy) (copy)

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., walks through a group of reporters Thursday after Republicans released their long-awaited bill to scuttle much of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act at the Capitol in Washington. 

J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Sen. Ron Johnson cast a deciding vote today in allowing the Senate to take up legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. 

The Wisconsin Republican was the 50th senator to cast a vote to allow the health care bill to move forward, leaving it to Vice President Mike Pence to break the tie. 

"If we didn’t proceed to a bill, the process would have ended and the mess that is Obamacare would have remained in place," Johnson told reporters on a conference call after the vote. "So we have to keep continuing on the process."

Johnson has been a prominent and fervent Obamacare critic since he emerged from obscurity to unseat Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold in 2010. But his misgivings with the process by which the overhaul bill was crafted have slowed down its momentum and put his support in question. 

Johnson complained as recently as Monday he didn't "have a clue what we're gonna be voting on." It's still unclear what the bill will look like when it comes to a vote. 

In a speech calling for a return to bipartisanship and an end to "bombast," Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said he would not vote for the bill in its current form. He did vote to begin debate. 

Johnson said he told Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell before casting his vote that he wants to "continue to be a positive influence on getting a good a bill as possible."

His priorities, he said, are to "save traditional Medicaid" and bring down gross premiums. He avoided staking a firm position on any current Obamacare alternatives, including a so-called "skinny repeal," arguing it's difficult to consider any option on its own without context. 

"I would support voting for full repeal in a heartbeat, but only to set up full replacement," he said.

Johnson also said he plans to introduce an amendment that would put a stop to new enrollment in the federal Medicaid expansion by able-bodied, childless adults. He also plans to hold committee hearings on the health care legislation. 

A majority of Wisconsin voters, at 54 percent, favor keeping the Affordable Care Act on the books and improving it, according to a recent Marquette University Law School poll. Six percent support keeping it as-is, while 27 percent support repealing and replacing it. Seven percent said they would prefer to repeal and not replace.

Asked about concerns he's heard from constituents afraid the overhaul will adversely affect their access to coverage, Johnson said people are usually supportive once they hear about his intentions. 

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"The people that are primarily concerned in Wisconsin are working off of misinformation. They’ve been, unfortunately, influenced by the scaremongering and the demagoguery," Johnson said.

The senator said he is hopeful Democrats and Republicans will be able to work together as the process moves forward. He called McCain's speech, which urged a return to "sincere and principled" deliberations rather than "partisan" and "tribal" ones, inspiring.

"What have we to lose by trying to work together to find those solutions? We’re not getting much done apart," McCain argued.

Asked whether he agrees the Senate isn't accomplishing much, Johnson said it's been difficult because of "Senate Democrat obstruction," pointing in particular to delays in confirming members of President Donald Trump's administration.

"It's really been a scandal what Democrats have done in terms of their obstruction," Johnson said.

Johnson's Democratic counterpart, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, took to Twitter on Tuesday to call for an end to "partisan nonsense."

"Right now, the Senate is voting to move forward on partisan health care repeal that will make things worse, not better. I'm voting no," she tweeted.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.