The U.S. Senate – which calls itself “the world’s greatest deliberative body” – came within a single senator’s vote on Friday of violently disrupting the health and well-being of millions of people just so some members could partially satisfy their half-baked campaign promises.

It was a very close call.

The nation is extraordinarily lucky that Maine sent two people to Washington, in Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, whose commitment to public service would not let them to take part in such a mean-spirited and reckless political gambit.

Credit is especially due to Collins, who stood up against her party’s leadership as one of only three Republican senators (along with Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John McCain of Arizona) to defeat what was not just a bad bill but also a horrendous legislative process.

King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, had been consistently on the right side of this issue, but he acknowledged that what Collins did Friday took special courage.

“It’s easy to stand up to your opponents,” King told reporters. “It’s very hard to stand up to your friends.”

Friday’s vote was a landmark event. Now that efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) are stalled, we hope Collins and King will be at the center of crafting bipartisan legislation to stabilize insurance markets, reform payment systems and make the dream of affordable health care a reality for more Americans.

Last week’s showdown should put to rest the notion that there is any simple way to take on this problem. For several election cycles, Republican candidates have been able to gain ground by blaming everything people don’t like about our health care system on the Affordable Care Act, even when their complaints had nothing to do with the law that had passed with only Democratic votes in 2010.

So, when a voter’s insurance premiums spiked, drugs became unaffordable or deductibles increased, Republicans could blame it on Obamacare and the Democrats, even if those events had nothing to do with the ACA.

Once Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress and the presidency, however, it became clear that Obamacare was more than a list of things that everybody hated.

For instance, Republican lawmakers found that very few of their constituents are actually interested in going back to the pre-Obamacare days when an insurance company could refuse to cover someone with a pre-existing condition. Maintaining that provision had repercussions throughout the system, and played out in the bill that failed to get a majority early Friday morning.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had proposed a “skinny repeal” bill that would have left most of the current law in place, including the protections for people with pre-existing conditions, but would have eliminated the mandate that all individuals buy insurance or face a tax penalty.

Getting rid of the individual mandate has been a key Republican talking point for years, but economists say it’s necessary to keep healthy people in the insurance pool if you want to cover people who are already sick.

If you didn’t need to buy insurance until you wanted to make a claim, only sick people would be covered and premiums would be even higher than they are already. Taking out the individual mandate would be like pulling a stray end of yarn from the middle of a sweater: The whole garment quickly falls apart.

That’s why the Congressional Budget Office and other independent analysts estimated that 15 million more people would no longer have insurance under McConnell’s proposal, either because they would choose to “free ride” while they were healthy or because they would not be able to afford to buy insurance at a drastically higher cost.

The events of the last weeks should be eye-opening to everyone involved in the health care reform debate. Collins and the others prevented a calamity, but a system that does not work for many millions of Americans is still in place.

Simply put, health care costs too much, which puts tremendous economic pressure on middle-class families, employers and government budgets and leaves millions with inadequate care or none at all. This can’t be fixed with a slogan.

Perhaps now, “the world’s greatest deliberative body” will take it on.