Dissent Forces House GOP to Pull Bill Repealing Obamacare

Dissent Forces House GOP to Pull Bill Repealing Obamacare
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After seven years of campaign promises to repeal and replace Obamacare -- a call that yielded Republicans the House, Senate and ultimately the White House -- and after dozens of votes in Congress to undo President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, Speaker Paul Ryan conceded Friday that it would remain in place “for the foreseeable future.”

His remarks came after the House GOP failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act Friday, lacking enough party support to pass their measure and canceling a vote just minutes before it was scheduled to take place.

It marked a significant defeat for Ryan and President Trump in the early months of unified Republican government, and put their leadership, party unity and future agenda in question.

Ryan met with Trump at the White House Friday afternoon as lawmakers debated the legislation on the House floor, and the two spoke by phone just a half-hour before the vote was scheduled. The speaker argued that the legislation lacked the support to pass and would put members in a tough position if they were forced to proceed. Trump agreed, and the vote was canceled.

Ryan, speaking to reporters after informing fellow lawmakers that they would move on entirely from the health-care debate, called it a “disappointing day” and a “setback.”

“I will not sugarcoat this: This is a disappointing day for us. Doing big things is hard,” the speaker said. He later added: “I don’t know what else to say other than Obamacare is the law of the land. It’s going to remain the law of the land until it’s replaced. We did not have quite the votes to replace this law.”

Ryan, Trump and Republican leaders lobbied furiously throughout the week to gin up support for the measure. They lacked votes both from members of the House Freedom Caucus, who thought the bill wasn’t conservative enough, and more moderate members of the conference who were concerned about the number of constituents who could lose health care under the measure.

Republicans were optimistic as late as Thursday evening that the votes would be there to pass the bill, buoyed by an ultimatum from the president that was delivered by his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, to go on record as supporting the new legislation or not.

But even after making last-minute changes Thursday night to woo recalcitrant conservatives, leaders were unable to cross the needed threshold.  

In a meeting between Ryan and Freedom Caucus members in the speaker’s office Thursday afternoon – attended by Mulvaney and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon – both Ryan and Mulvaney wanted to ask each lawmaker whether or not they supported the bill, according to a source familiar with the meeting. But Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows spoke for the group, saying they were opposed, the source said. A spokeswoman for Meadows did not return a request for comment.

By late Friday morning, the legislation appeared to be hemorrhaging support. Conservatives did not budge, and moderates continued to announce their opposition throughout the day. During a preliminary vote that set the terms of debate for the measure, Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen announced he would vote against the bill. Ohio Rep. While Ryan met with Trump at the White House, Rep. David Joyce tweeted that he would oppose it too.

Late in the afternoon, Ryan told GOP lawmakers in a brief meeting that he had canceled the vote and the conference was moving on entirely from health care. Members flowing out of the meeting were disappointed, frustrated, or, in some cases, shocked.

Rep. Bill Flores, the first member to exit the meeting, cast blame squarely on conservatives.

“Freedom Caucus. They sided with the Democrats,” he said, when asked who was at fault. He later added: “The American people are going to feel the pain that was caused by a small component of our conference."

“We’re done with this. There’s no health care this year,” Flores said.

Others were less direct. Rep. Greg Walden, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which drafted a portion of the bill, appeared frustrated, but would not cast blame for the legislation’s demise.

“This bill is dead,” he said.

Meadows, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus and one of the most consistent and vocal opponents of the legislation, did not react upon exiting the meeting. After speaking to reporters endlessly in recent weeks on the health-care bill negotiations, Meadows was silent, and an aide declined comment.

Later, in a statement, Meadows said he remained “wholeheartedly committed” to following through on his pledge for a “full repeal of the Affordable Care Act and a replacement with a market-driven approach that brings down costs and provides more choices for the American people.”

For many GOP lawmakers, Friday was a moment of reckoning. Prior to the vote being canceled, Rep. Joe Barton, a member of the Freedom Caucus who would have supported the legislation, said its failure would be a “huge black eye” for Republicans. Afterward, he attempted to explain the outcome. 

“Sometimes you’re playing fantasy football and sometimes you’re in the real game,” Barton said. He elaborated that House Republicans knew, with each past repeal vote, that Obama would have vetoed it. “This time, we knew if it got to the president’s desk it would be signed."

Ryan, during his press conference, said the failure was part of the “growing pains” of becoming a governing party.

Rep. Tom Cole, a close ally of leadership, said Thursday evening that aborted vote would not hurt Ryan or Trump’s leadership status, but it “cripples the conference.” He said that “success breeds success” and that other legislative agenda items, including funding the government, raising the debt ceiling and enacting tax reform, would become more difficult if the health-care vote failed. He echoed Ryan’s call to become a governing party.

“There are times to be the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae and this isn’t it,” he said. “We’re supposed to be on offense here, not defense."

Rep. Mark Walker, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, which has roughly 170 members, said less than an hour prior to the vote being cancelled that he thought there could be benefits to going ahead since doing so would force opponents to go on record. Asked who was to blame if the legislation failed, he didn’t single anyone out.

“Maybe there’s enough to spread around,” Walker said. “You can’t pretend and say this is a win for us. I’m sure our friends on the left, this is a good moment for them. In fact, probably that champagne that wasn’t popped back in November may be utilized this evening.”

Indeed, Democrats took a victory lap Friday afternoon. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi held a press conference immediately following Ryan’s, and called it a “great day for our country.”

“What happened on the floor is a victory for the American people,” she said.

Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer also hailed the outcome, saying he had “never seen an administration as incompetent as the one occupying the White House today.”

“So much for the ‘Art of the Deal’” he added, referencing Trump’s famous book on negotiating.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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