As House Republican leaders claim they’re getting ever closer to acquiring the votes they need to pass the American Health Care Act, pressure is mounting on a number of still-reluctant, vulnerable GOP members of Congress to fall in line. As such, those members want to go into hiding. Here is a taste of what it’s like trying to pin down an undecided Republican member of Congress on his or her possible Trumpcare vote this week.
Maine Rep. Bruce Poliquin has yet to declare either his support or opposition for the bill. As he was walking out of the House Republican conference’s morning meeting Tuesday, I asked him if he had arrived at a decision. He said nothing and made a beeline to the restroom. Unfortunately it was the door to the women’s restroom that he had first run to, so he corrected himself and went into the men’s room. When he emerged several minutes later, he was wearing his earbuds and scurried away.
Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, another undecided member, met with Vice President Mike Pence on Monday afternoon. Pence had come up to Capitol Hill to whip health care votes. When Diaz-Balart emerged to a flock of reporters, he had with him his wife and child, to whom he introduced everyone. I am not saying that Diaz-Balart brought them solely as a diversionary tactic, but if he did, it didn’t work. When asked about his health care vote, he merely stated that his focus was on appropriations. (Negotiations on the appropriations bill are complete, but it’s still awaiting a final vote.) So what was Pence’s pitch to him on health care? He said that they were talking about other things. Of course.
No undecided member is leaning more heavily on the focus-on-appropriations excuse, though, than the Appropriations Committee chairman himself, New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen.
Frelinghuysen, whose declaration that he would vote against the first version of the bill in March put a dagger in that effort, cannot be broken this time around. A herd of 15 or 20 reporters followed him down the hall as he exited the Tuesday conference meeting with seemingly everyone getting a chance to ask him a variation of the same health care question. Is he on the fence? “My focus has been on making sure the government doesn’t shut down.” Where does he stand? “The position I’ve taken is the most important thing is keeping the government open.” And so on, ad infinitum.
You can see why these undecided members, few of whom can truly be undecided, don’t want to go public.
If you go public with your “no” this late in the game, you unleash unpleasantness upon yourself from party leaders. Missouri Rep. Billy Long announced he was a “no” on Monday, citing the bill’s weakened protections for those with pre-existing conditions. Though House Majority Whip Steve Scalise argued on Monday that this wasn’t a surprise and leaders have known about his reservations for a while, it sure seemed like it shocked them.
If they’d known for a while, perhaps President Trump wouldn’t have bothered making a phone call to him Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke. If they’d known for a while, perhaps Speaker Paul Ryan wouldn’t have held a lengthy, and seemingly unfriendly, conversation with Long on the House floor during Monday’s afternoon votes. But both of those things happened. Long lingered in the chamber for a while after votes ended, sitting alone in a near-empty chamber in what appeared to be a state of deep thought. Leaders believe that they will restore Billy Long—who represents a safe, R+23 district—to the “yes” column.
If you’re a public “yes,” meanwhile, you might invite unpleasantness from your constituents—without any assurance that the bill will pass.
California Rep. Darrell Issa, typically a loyal vote for leadership, now finds himself representing a pure toss-up district comprised of a growing number of minorities along with white professionals who are terrified of Trump. I asked him on Monday if he was still undecided, and he waved me off, saying he was on the phone. (At the very least, he was wearing a Bluetooth headset.)
If Issa were a “yes”—and I’d expect he probably will fall in line if needed—then what would he have to gain by announcing that to a reporter? It would just inflame his constituents without altering the state of his commitment to leaders. And if leadership ultimately fails to reach 216 votes, what good will it have done for Issa to go on the record as a “yes” when a recorded vote was never held? He would have handed his Democratic opponents’ all the ad material they needed to end his career with nothing to show for it.
All of this makes it hard to get an accurate whip count that tells us how close the House really is to passing this bill, which they hope to do before members leave for next week’s recess. Public whip counts are converging on a similar number of professed noes: The Huffington Post has 20, the Hill 22, the New York Times and CNN 21 as of this writing. House leaders can only afford to lose 22 if they want to pass the bill, and each of these counts contain a whole lot of undecideds. Leaders would need to sweep just about all of them.
House leaders are certainly acting as though they’re only a handful of votes away. If true, that would indicate that most of those undecideds really are closet “yes” votes who want to keep their mouths shut until leaders reach 216.
But at least one of Monday’s undecideds confirmed that he would be voting against the bill—and it was a big one. Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, a senior member of the House Republican conference who until recently served as chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee—which has health policy jurisdiction—told a local radio show Tuesday morning that he would vote against the AHCA. This might end up being a Frelinghuysen-Level Event that offers cover for less senior members to vote against the bill.
If so, House leaders are much, much further away than either they or the mysterious undecideds are letting on.