WASHINGTON — If Republicans, with control of the House, the Senate, and the White House, proved unable to gather the votes to repeal and replace of Obamacare, can they get anything done at all?
“I don’t know. We’ll have to see,” said North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer, as he emerged from a meeting in which House Republicans officially scuttled their effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, having failed to find enough Republican votes to pass it. Ryan’s message to Republicans at that meeting: It was time to move on from healthcare.
But it remains to be seen whether Republicans will be able to find more consensus on the other big ticket items on their — and President Donald Trump’s — agenda. Trump has repeatedly said he’d like to tackle tax reform — an issue perhaps equally as complicated as health care — very soon.
“I don't know if we could pass a Mother's Day resolution right now,” Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz told reporters Friday.
Still, some Republicans remained optimistic. “In the legislative process, you never say never,” said Arizona Rep. David Schweikert. Tax reform, in particular, might be easier, he predicted, because it “is less visceral” — a discussion of numbers and bottom lines, rather than cancer patients and sick children.
In the days leading up to the ultimately-cancelled vote, House Republicans said the stakes were high. “It’s a question of whether or not you can actually govern,” Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, an ally of leadership, said earlier in the week.
In large part, Republicans say the answer to that question depends on who gets the blame for the health care bill going down. Is it Speaker Paul Ryan and President Donald Trump, who have been the public faces of this bill? Is it the conservative Freedom Caucus, whose continued unwillingness to support the bill left Republicans shy of the votes? Or is it more moderate Republicans in vulnerable districts, who were also unable to get on board?
“I don’t want to cast blame,” Ryan told reporters after cancelling the vote. But the failure to get this bill done is undeniably a blow to everyone involved.
Ultimately, Ryan blamed the process of getting used to being in control. “Moving from an opposition party to a governing party comes with growing pains. And well, we’re feeling those growing pains today,” he told reporters.
Trump, for months, has boasted of his unrivaled skills at making deals, but despite leveraging the full power of the presidency, he was unable to get it done.
“We don’t want to hand the president defeat to this magnitude … that’s what we’re concerned about,” Rep. Mark Walker, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, acknowledged earlier this week.
"This jeopardizes the president's entire agenda for the next two years,” said New York Rep. Chris Collins, Trump’s earliest supporter in Congress.
But the president made clear he has no intention of taking any blame, or even acknowledging this as a defeat. Speaking after the vote, Trump declared that they had achieved a good outcome. “The best thing that could happen is the thing that happened today," Trump said. "We will have a truly great healthcare bill in the future after this mess known as Obamacare explodes."
Likewise, Ryan expended a huge amount of political capital to try to get this bill passed. He held numerous private meetings and listening sessions. He rolled up his sleeves and delivered a Powerpoint presentation to quash criticism of the bill’s fundamentals. He insisted, over and over, that this was something Republicans had promised to do, and it was a promise that they had to keep.
And then, on Friday, he told Republicans they were simply going to move on.
Still, House Republicans were fiercely protective of Ryan and the role he played in attempting to shepherd the bill through.
“They’ve done everything they can. Nobody, even people that won’t vote yes, are critical of the President or the Speaker and the leadership team. This is about us; this is not about them. And you’re either part of a team or you’re not,” Cole said Thursday evening.
Even sometime critics of leadership were complimentary. “This was probably, actually though healthier than we’d experienced in the past … if the previous Speaker had been in that chair, it would have been a bludgeoning. This wasn’t a bludgeoning,” said Arizona Rep. David Schweikert, a member of the Freedom Caucus who was kicked off a committee for opposing former Speaker John Boehner.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was complimentary of both Trump and Ryan earlier Friday, telling reporters that they had both done all that they could. "At the end of the day you can’t force somebody to do something,” he said of members unwilling to vote for the bill.
But others point to the fact that leadership was able to produce a bill that was utterly unpalatable not just to the Freedom Caucus, a group that many members view as obstructionist by nature, but to a wide swath of the conference. The rollout of the bill, which was done almost entirely in the House, privately irked some Republicans, who felt that if they needed the White House to pass it, then Trump should have been more involved from the beginning.
“Everybody loves to blame somebody else for their failures. I think collectively there would probably be enough blame to go around,” Cramer said Friday morning before the vote. “But at the same time, if this goes down because we can’t get certain factions of the Republican Party involved, I think we have to do some internal soul searching to determine whether or not we are … if we’re even capable of functioning as a governing body.”
Implicit in that defense is a criticism of the Freedom Caucus, the group of forty or so conservative members whose sustained opposition to the health care bill left leadership consistently grasping for votes. The group’s all-or-nothing approach to negotiating has repeatedly put them at odds with leadership over the years, and that continues to hold true, even with a fully Republican-controlled government.
Since Trump’s election, the conventional wisdom from leadership and allies has been that Freedom Caucus members would be disinclined to cross him because he had performed so well electorally in their districts. “I think you’re going to see us sticking together more,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said at the end of November, following Trump’s election.
On Tuesday, Trump indicated to the House conference that he would be willing to put that clout to use, implying that he would back primary challenges to people who crossed him on this bill.
But many Freedom Caucus members remained banded together as a bloc of “no” votes on the bill, even though the version of the legislation that was set to be considered Friday afternoon included a concession to the group. That deal involved nixing an Obamacare regulation that dictates minimum benefits that insurance plans have to cover, including things like emergency room visits.
Some Republicans felt the Freedom Caucus was moving the goalposts instead of making an earnest effort to get to a place where they could vote for it. In the days leading up to the vote, leadership had been up-front about blaming the group if the bill collapsed. If the bill goes down, “I think ‘Freedom Caucus is voting against Obamacare repeal’ is the headline there,” said a GOP leadership aide earlier this week.
"I think anybody who thought Trump could corral these guys didn't know who Freedom Caucus is,” said a GOP consultant who has Freedom Caucus clients.
Without those votes, leadership was left trying to cajole moderates for whom a vote in favor of the bill would have posed a severe electoral liability. In the end, quite a few members in vulnerable districts declared they would be unable to vote for it. But allies of leadership see those members as in a different category than the Freedom Caucus, arguing that they felt those people were making an honest effort to get on board, even if they ultimately couldn’t do it.
Ryan declined to blame the Freedom Caucus in his press conference. “There is a block of no votes that we had... There were a sufficient number of votes that prevented it from passing and they didn't change their votes. ... Some of the members of that caucus were voting with us, but not enough were.”
Others were far more willing to do so.
"I'm very upset about it," said former Wisconsin Gov. and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, blaming the failure on "individuals [who] wanted a perfect bill — and there's no such thing as a perfect bill."
"They didn't vote for it for whatever reason, they had 90% of what they wanted and they wanted more but you don't get that when you're dealing with legislation. So I think the recalcitrant Republicans [and others] made a huge mistake."
"I don't want to lay the blame with anybody, I was not there in the House,” Thompson added. “I just know as somebody who took a last look at this thing, it's an embarrassment — it's an embarrassment to the people in Congress. They held back the bill and it was badly needed.”
Where Republicans go from here remains to be seen. Tax and immigration reform are the next stops, some members said as they emerged from the meeting with Ryan. Immigration reform has always been a difficult issue on which to find consensus, even among Republicans, and already, cracks have shown on this latest attempt at tax reform. Ryan has been pushing a border adjustment tax, something a number of Republicans, including the monied Koch network, vehemently oppose.
But House Republicans say they will have to find a way to make it work.
“There are times to be, you know, the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae,” Cole said before the vote. “This isn’t it.”
Tarini Parti, Darren Sands, Lissandra Villa, and Emma Loop contributed to the reporting.