POLITICS
03/07/2017 06:40 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2017

Conservatives Willing To Negotiate On Obamacare Repeal ― If It's A Repeal They Like

Art of the Deal, amirite?

WASHINGTON ― After the sour reception to the GOP’s health care plan cast doubt on Republicans’ plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the House and Senate’s most conservative members held a press conference Tuesday afternoon to convey a simple message: We’re ready to negotiate with GOP leadership.

House Freedom Caucus leaders Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) had just come from a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence, and they reported that Pence, echoing a tweet that President Donald Trump sent in the morning, said the administration was “open for negotiation.”

Conservatives in the Freedom Caucus tried to be clear that the current bill was unacceptable to them, meaning it could not pass the House if their group stuck together, while also signaling that they were willing to strike a deal.

That conflicted tone was on full display as lawmakers like Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) called the GOP bill “an opening bid,” and as Jordan and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) ― who joined House lawmakers with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) ― noted that they would be introducing legislation on Wednesday that was nearly identical to the 2015 repeal that passed both the House and Senate.

Conservatives are essentially saying they’re willing to discuss what they would need to support the current plan, but also that maybe Republicans should just pass a different bill entirely.

The problem for GOP leaders now is that they would likely have difficulty pushing that reconciliation bill through the House and Senate again. Its language would tear apart the Medicaid expansion, which many Republicans have warmed to, and would leave out a number of the replacement provisions Republicans now believe they need to have a functioning health care system after a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

The Freedom Caucus recently took an official position that the 2015 repeal should be the floor for a new health care bill, but there are now signals that the roughly 40-man group would be open to something less ― or more ― than that measure. 

For instance, after the press conference, Meadows said he would be willing to agree to some form of the advance refundable tax credits that other conservatives are painting as a new welfare program.

“In some scenario, I can support an advance refundable [tax credit] in that I understand the need of the working poor to be able to afford health care coverage,” Meadows told reporters. “And so, in some scenario, under the right conditions, we can look at it.”

He added that negotiations on the GOP health care bill are a “give-and-take,” and said conservatives were not presenting leaders with a “take it or leave it” proposition.

Notably absent from the press conference on Tuesday was the one Senate Republican who came to define the Obamacare repeal effort in 2013: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Cruz has been cagey on whether he would draw hard lines on positions like the advance refundable tax credits, but he told reporters Tuesday that he has “a number of concerns with the draft bill.”

“The president tweeted this morning that this bill is open for negotiation, and I think that’s exactly right,” he said.

Like other conservatives, Cruz recommends just going with the 2015 bill and dealing with the replacement later. “We should start with the 2015 repeal language,” he said after meeting with Pence. “That should be the floor from which we start, and from there we should build upwards, adding to that reforms on which there is consensus.”

But there is no consensus. A moderate bill that could pass the Senate would lose the votes of the House’s far-right members. A bill that could get the votes of the more conservative members of the House would likely lose the moderates in the Senate.

“We can not do nothing at all. Failure is not an option,” Cruz said. “This election was a referendum on Obamacare. For six years, we have campaigned promising the American people if elected we will repeal Obamacare, and I think it’s critical that we honor that promise.”

And while Republicans appear fractured on the health care strategy, they are still united in their desire to repeal Obamacare.

As Paul said Tuesday, there is one thing that has united Republicans “in 2010 when we won the House, in 2014 when we won the Senate and in 2016 when we won the White House,” and that is “complete repeal.”

And even amid all the doubts about whether this GOP bill could find a majority in the House and Senate, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) projected confidence on Tuesday.

“We will have 218 votes,” Ryan said. “This is the beginning of the legislative process. We’ve got a few weeks. We’ll have 218 when this thing comes to the floor, I can guarantee you that.”

Ryan Grim contributed reporting.

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