Members of the House Republican conference returned to Washington from their weekend homes more determined than ever to do the people’s business: covering their own asses.
It does not appear that Speaker Paul Ryan’s edict last week that “Obamacare is the law of the land … for the foreseeable future” ingratiated his more conservative members to their constituents. After seven years of repeal rhetoric and all the numbers finally being in place for Republicans in Washington, abandoning the effort after 17 days looked almost as pathetic as the piece of legislation they were attempting to pass. It was a gut punch to the base, embarrassed the new president, and made the agenda item that Republicans really care about—tax reform—difficult bordering on impossible. The best talking point that the speaker of the people’s House has been able to muster since the American Health Care Act’s failure is that “it may take a little bit more time” for the GOP to mature into a “governing party.” Since the GOP is the governing party, he may want to discontinue use of this self-punching talking point going forward.
The narrative that Obamacare was safe, and that health care legislating from here on out would be bipartisan and aimed at working up from its foundation, came dangerously close to solidifying into fact over the weekend. This was a reasonable interpretation of Ryan’s own words, President Trump’s own words, and reality. It’s a politically inconvenient interpretation, though, for the members who’ve staked their careers on repealing Obamacare and the leaders responsible for protecting those members’ careers.
And so House Republicans returned Tuesday morning to declare that their partisan repeal efforts weren’t dead yet.
“We are all going to work together and listen together until we get this right,” Ryan said Tuesday morning, following a House Republican meeting. “It is just too important.” Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy reiterated the message. “We promised that we would repeal and replace Obamacare,” he said, “and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.” And Majority Whip Steve Scalise described Democrats’ celebration of repeal-and-replace’s defeat as “premature.”
“I think we’re closer today to repealing Obamacare than we’ve ever been before,” Scalise said. Even if that were true, it wouldn’t mean they’re close to repealing Obamacare.
Ryan suggested that certain fault lines on health care had been resolved within the conference meeting and added that going forward members were “not going to retrench into our corners or put up dividing lines.”
But immediately after the meeting, members retrenched into their corners and put up dividing lines.
Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, a Freedom Caucus member, believes that the way to proceed is to put a full repeal bill on the floor. On Friday, he filed a one-sentence bill repealing the Affordable Care Act. He does not intend to get full repeal to the floor by persuading leadership to bring it up—something those very leaders had no problem doing dozens of times in previous Congresses for messaging purposes, when they weren’t an arm of the unified “governing party.” Instead Brooks will try to collect 216 signatures for a discharge petition, which would circumvent leadership to force a floor vote. Few have expressed support for Brooks’ measure; even Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows rejected it. Even if it did get a floor vote, it might not pass the House, and if it did, it wouldn’t pass the Senate. All of which Brooks is smart enough to understand. He just wants to show that he is superior to his fellow Republican members of Congress.
“At a minimum,” he said, “the discharge petition will, like the sun burning away the fog, show American voters who really wants to repeal Obamacare and who merely acts that way during election time.”
In other words, he wants to avoid blame for the unified governing party’s failure to repeal Obamacare, by selling out his weak-kneed colleagues. (His colleagues, of course, do deserve to be sold out for the hypocrisy he cites.)
Meanwhile, Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam wants Ryan to abandon the framework of the American Health Care Act altogether and start from scratch, Politico reports. Starting anew on health care after a world-historic failure with no reason to believe that the next time would be any different sure doesn’t sound like what Republican members have the appetite for right now! Not to mention the president, who staked his world-famous bargaining skills on the idea that the AHCA was a take-it-or-leave-it offer. But, in theory, how would Roskam’s idea work out any differently? From Politico:
Roskam argued that Republicans should instead write an “aspirational bill” that incorporates everything the GOP has sought to do on health care— regardless of what the Senate can pass. That way, he said, members wouldn’t have to defend taking a vote on what many viewed as a mediocre bill. It would also force the public’s attention onto the Senate instead of the House, Roskam said.
Allow me to condense this paragraph: “Roskam argued that Republicans should [cover their asses].”
Nothing House Republicans have been talking about since Tuesday morning demonstrates meaningful progress on the health care consensus that’s eluded them for seven years. It just demonstrates that their first priority now is blame-shifting, either onto another wing of the caucus or the Senate. The rank and file don’t want to be thought of as a joke, the Freedom Caucus is worried it may have overplayed its hand, and Ryan wants to be able to say that he fulfilled his end of the bargain, and now it’s time for those snoots over in the House of Lords to fulfill theirs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sees all of this for what it is, and in his press conference Tuesday urged House members to move on before making further fools of themselves. (Exactly what a House of Lords snoot would say!)
Denial is a hell of a thing.