Gone are the days when members could easily unite to merely thwart President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda. In their place: intra-party fights over how to replace the law or whether or not to keep popular provisions like coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.
Divisions between Republican moderates and conservatives spilled into public view daily on cable TV and in the halls of Congress. Meetings at the White House were often described as tense. One this week was called “contentious bordering on panicky.”
One member likened the conclusion of this stretch to “the last scene in Road Warrior.”
“Lots of death and destruction,” the member said, describing the film. “We were all fired up and ready to go. We’re going to finally take out Obamacare and replace it with conservative health care… to have that grind to a halt because of infighting within our own conference is demoralizing.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan repeatedly said that the transition from opposition party to governing party was inevitably going to be difficult. “Growing pains,” Ryan called it.
Add to that an unorthodox administration and unpredictable President, and all sides are sitting in the midst of a time that appears to be some combination of learning experience and soul-searching moment.
It won’t get easier.
Even as Ryan said that flexibility had been built into what, by all accounts, was an ambitious legislative agenda and calendar, there are no easy wins on the horizon. The deadline for funding the government is April 28. Ryan and his colleagues working on tax reform are clear-eyed about the haul ahead on that front.
A major infrastructure package — a Trump priority — is rife with ideological landmines. And there’s still health care. On that, Ryan made clear Thursday, conversations will continue — even if he implicitly acknowledged that the consensus they both seek and need, is far from a sure thing.
“There are more ideas that we’re working on, and that’s why we’re going to keep working in the days and weeks ahead to go and find that consensus and try and get this bill done,” Ryan said before leaving town Thursday.
Now, lawmakers have two weeks at home to think about what went wrong.
One GOP lawmaker put the blame squarely at the feet of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, accusing the group of never being able to cut a deal in good faith.
“In this process, we’re based 100% on the honor system. There’s no contracts here. We cut deals on everything. We talk and we don’t even shake hands. It’s just ‘we’re going to do this,’ and that’s how you move forward,” the member told CNN.
“This process cannot work if you have folks who are willing to ask for things, negotiate, get what they want, tell you they’re going to be with you and then a half an hour later back out,” the lawmaker added. “This process breaks down entirely.”
Before the health care bill was even released at the beginning of March, Republicans were already dubious of one another. Conservatives were accusing leadership of keeping legislative text under lock and key. Members grumbled that their first glimpses at the draft had come from media reports.
Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, led the Washington press corps in made-for-TV moment as he knocked on doors in the Capitol and demanded that staffers show him drafts of the bill that only Republican members of the relevant committees were permitted to see.
Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican from Pennsylvania and “the only practicing psychologist in elected federal office” put his GOP colleagues on the couch Thursday.
“I’ve practiced psychology for 41 years and I wouldn’t be practicing psychology if everyone got along,” Murphy said. “I just see that as a normal part of the process. Don’t worry. We’ll be OK. Everybody, just calm down, and we’ll continue to move forward.”
‘Contentious bordering on panicky’
It wasn’t just House Republicans struggling to find common ground.
In a Wednesday night meeting on White House grounds between top House leaders and Vice President Mike Pence, West Wing staff were described as “contentious bordering on panicky” by one GOP aide and the overall tone of the meeting described as “intense” by another source familiar with the matter.
The interaction demonstrated the there was also a clear split between the White House and House GOP leaders on the path forward.
In that meeting, according to three people briefed on the interaction, Pence and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus made clear that progress needed to be shown on health care immediately and flatly suggested Ryan put the bill on the floor before the end of the week.
The point, according to sources, was that Republicans — and Ryan’s position as speaker — were in political danger if leaders failed to move forward on an issue they had campaigned on for seven years.
But damaging politically or not, a simple reality remained, the House leaders made clear: the health care bill still didn’t have the votes it needed to pass.
In fact, a fully baked final proposal wasn’t even close to complete. As a compromise — and an effort to give the White House their show of progress, Ryan set in motion a plan to include one area that was agreed upon into the original bill. And he made sure he was flanked by members of his conference — from committee chairs to representatives from each of the warring caucuses.
The public message: all is well. The private reality: not so much.
Pence takes charge?
Pence asserted himself this week as the quarterback who could save the repeal and replace effort and Ryan had kept his distance, both cognizant that the dynamics that sank the initial effort hadn’t changed, and that an overt second push by leadership was likely to snuff out any organic conversations between rank-and-file lawmakers and caucus groups that House leaders were quietly encouraging.
But as the week moved along and Pence and his team put proposals on the table designed to bring the House Freedom Caucus into the fold, it had become abundantly clear to leaders that the efforts weren’t helping the overall vote count — and instead were likely hurting it.
Pence’s efforts to reengage talks between the moderate Tuesday Group and the Freedom Caucus backfired with members on both sides confused about what had actually been offered to them. Tuesday Group lawmakers insisted they’d been promised nothing more than giving states the opportunity to wave some Obamacare regulatory requirements like essential health benefits, which set standards of the kind of coverage an insurer must provide.
The Freedom Caucus, meanwhile, insisted it was offered more including the opportunity for states to apply for waivers to repeal the community rating provision, which dictates insurers cannot charge people more for insurance based off of medical history.
Allowing states to repeal that provision was a non-starter for many across the conference.
“There are a lot of provisions that I’ve campaigned on for four election cycles that are part of the law now that I want to preserve,” Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry told reporters Wednesday.
“So if you look at the cross section of the conference they have similar positions about similar provisions — preexisting condition, guarantee issue and medical underwriting are components of that,” McHenry added. “Community rating you can talk about changes in shifting there so you have a better participation in the insurance market place. You can have trials. You can do a number of different things around this, but the core provisions here are really important protections.”
‘Lucy with the football’
Adding to Republican pressure and the public distrust growing among their ranks was voices coming from the outside groups that anything short of the fuller repeal was unacceptable.
On Wednesday morning, Heritage Action for America Chief Executive Michael Needham held a call with reporters blasting moderates and accusing them of holding negotiations hostage.
“There’s not momentum at this point and it’s because of the intransigence of the Tuesday Group,” Needham told reporters on the call. “It calls into question their commitment to the basic tenets of the Republican Party.”
Moderates fired back.
“It’s not true. We’ve been trying to be constructive,” Rep. Tom MacArthur, a New Jersey Republican and a leader of the Tuesday Group told reporters as he shuffled onto the elevator.
“I’m afraid that the Freedom Caucus continues to play Lucy with the football and keeps moving the goal posts and I believe, from what I’ve heard, they’re less than genuine in trying to get to ‘yes,'” Rep. Chris Collins, a New York moderate, said.
The lack of unity on health care could represent a broader problem for the party moving forward. Health care, after all, was supposed to be the unifying issue. Going home without having it finished could only perpetuate the blame game and make it harder for Republicans to come together to fund the government, which runs out of money at the end of this month or pass tax reform or an infrastructure bill, which Trump is still hoping for.
‘Hey, here we are’
“I think these are growing pains,” said Rep. Dennis Ross, a Republican from Florida.
“Because we don’t have this done by the time we go home tomorrow, there’s going to be a blame game that will perpetuate itself over the next two weeks, which is going to make it much more challenging for the White House and the Speaker to bring us together.”
Ross said he was confident the conference could get together.
Ryan stood at his final news conference before the Easter recess flanked by more than a dozen smiling Republicans representing all corners of his party’s ideological spectrum.
“I actually think that divide is narrowing quite quickly,” Ryan said.
A Republican aide offered a more blunt assessment of the staged show of unity.
“It’s bullsh**. You know it’s bullsh**, we know it’s bullsh**. But hey, here we are.”