The back-and-forth played out as the Senate prepared for a freaky Capitol Hill ritual, a "vote-a-rama" on amendments that promised to last into the wee hours of Friday morning - at the end of which, the path ahead would perhaps be clearer.
On Tuesday, senators also rejected the repeal-and-replace plan Republicans had worked on since May, despite the fact that the Republicans hold a 52-48 majority in the Senate. Still, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Congressional Republicans actually set out to save Obamacare, and not a single Democrat was willing to join in the effort. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John McCain of Arizona in defeating a bill that would have erased several parts of the law signed by President Barack Obama.
But they did - from John McCain, the Arizona senator and war hero recently diagnosed with brain cancer, who has more than five years left in his term.
The bill would also have cut off federal funds for women's health organisation Planned Parenthood for one year.
"It's a disappointing moment", said McConnell, blinking back tears moments after the vote was final.
"I regret that our efforts were simply not enough this time", he said.
Having spent more than five years being tortured in a Vietnamese prison camp, refusing to be released ahead of his comrades, it can be safely said that McCain needed no reminder of the perils of military service in times of war. When some of the rules were repealed, "things went badly", said Mark Hall, director of the health law and policy program at Wake Forest University.
Conservative Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., who's running for a vacant Senate seat, suggested it was time for McConnell to relinquish his post. He added, "How is he going to get the job done on the rest of President Trump's agenda?"
McCain, in an impassioned speech the day he returned, had called for bipartisanship on major issues of national concern, and a return to the "regular order" of legislating by committee.
"Turn back", Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of NY implored his GOP colleagues before the vote. "I would say to my dear friend, the majority leader, we are not celebrating".
Bigger challenges await on the Senate floor, including the vote-a-rama, a fusillade of votes on dozens if not hundreds of amendments. "This effort will continue", Price said. But the narrow victory on a simple procedural matter raised questions about whether Republicans can muster the votes necessary to pass any of the various approaches to repeal.
The Senate rejected, as part of the McConnell proposal, a Cruz plan to let insurers sell low-priced insurance plans with few regulations or coverage requirements, so long as they also sell more robust plans.
When the debate is done, the Senate moves on to what is unofficially called the "Vote-a-Rama", possibly as early as Thursday. He said Democrats and Republicans should write a bill together and "stop the political gamesmanship". 15 and stabilize the individual insurance market under Obamacare for the long term. But shortly afterwards, his words received varied responses from three GOP senators who had insisted on a clear commitment from Mr Ryan.
Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said he pretty much took Ryan's statement as a commitment, but wanted to talk to other senators first.
While Ryan was able to secure House passage of a comprehensive bill to gut Obamacare in May, McConnell earlier in the week was unable to win passage of similarly broad healthcare legislation amid intraparty squabbling and competing demands by hard-line conservatives and moderates.
The details of the narrow bill remain unclear, but senators are reportedly considering eliminating the individual mandate, which requires all USA citizens to have health insurance or face a penalty.
And a bipartisan group of governors including John Kasich of OH and Brian Sandoval of Nevada also announced against it.