WASHINGTON ― As the collapse of the GOP health care bill becomes increasingly real, Republicans are shifting from infinite negotiations to another one of Washington’s favorite pastimes: the blame game.
In a demonstration of just how deeply the House GOP conference is divided ― and just how far Republicans are from an agreement ― the question is now less when, or even whether, the House will pass a health care bill; it’s whose fault is it that Republicans won’t.
“That seems to be the permeating question today,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee caucus, told The Huffington Post on Wednesday. “It is not the Tuesday Group’s fault.”
Walker, who’s been at the negotiating table in a self-described “big brother” role to help the moderate Tuesday Group and the far-right House Freedom Caucus work out their differences, proceeded to recount a two-hour meeting Tuesday night that ended with no resolution. Walker himself was quickly won over as soon as GOP leadership offered Medicaid work requirements in the health care bill. And with members from both the Tuesday Group and the Freedom Caucus in the roughly 170-member RSC, Walker sees a natural role for himself and the Study Committee to act as mediators.
But even he doesn’t think the Freedom Caucus’ demands, which would essentially eliminate cost protections for people with pre-existing conditions, are reasonable. He called the elimination of so-called community rating, in which all are charged the same for the same coverage, a “tough ask.”
“The Tuesday Group is trying to get there,” Walker said. “I think a good bit of the Freedom Caucus guys are trying to get there. But it just takes a couple in either group to spin this thing sideways.”
As it turns out, there are more than enough members in either camp to derail the bill ― and even though plenty from both groups declined to point the finger, citing how assigning fault would be counterproductive to negotiations, there were Republicans ready to blame their counterparts Wednesday.
For Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), it’s just that moderates don’t want to repeal Obamacare.
“The original cause of the problem is that the Tuesday Group has reneged on their commitment to repeal Obamacare,” Brooks, a Freedom Caucus member, told HuffPost. “We ought to have the exact same repeal that we had a year and a half ago that passed the House and passed the Senate.”
One metaphor Republicans seem obsessed with these days is “moving the goal posts.” Moderates have repeatedly accused conservatives of adjusting their demands (though the reality is conservatives have consistently had a long list of difficult demands that they’ve scaled back). And conservatives have recently taken to claiming moderates moved the target when some Tuesday Group members signaled they might be able to live with the community rating changes in a meeting with the White House on Monday (though no agreement was ever reached, and many Republicans in the GOP conference would defect if that proposal were made a reality).
Rank-and-file Republicans have repeatedly indicated they can’t accept a change to the health care bill that would raise prices on sick people. Take reliable yes vote Tom Rooney (R-Fla.). He called the community rating change “a death knell.”
“I mean, you talk about losing some Tuesday Groupers for the other stuff,” Rooney said. “I think you’ll lose all them and a lot of other people, too.”
The Tuesday Group has moved the goal posts off the playing field. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus
But if you ask Brooks, these concerns of broken promises over retaining pre-existing condition provisions pale in comparison to the broken promise of not actually repealing Obamacare.
“The Tuesday Group has moved the goal posts off the playing field,” Brooks said.
When pressed that if that recalibration of standards was true of moderates, it was also true of GOP leadership and other Republicans, Brooks said leadership was “reflective of the weakest link in the conference.”
“The Tuesday Group,” he said.
Outside conservative groups, like Heritage Action for America and The Club for Growth, also took to blaming moderates Wednesday. During a conference call, Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham blasted “the intransigence of the Tuesday Group.”
“The truth is that the Tuesday Group is not opposed to this based on policy,” Needham said. “They are opposed because they do not want to repeal Obamacare. They do not believe in policy innovation coming from states, and they do not believe in the basic premises of the Republican Party.”
But moderates from the Tuesday Group dismissed those harsh words as “nothing more than a fundraising ploy,” in the words of Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.).
Collins told reporters that it was conservatives who were holding up the passage of a repeal bill.
“They keep moving the goal posts,” he said.
“They wanted a bridge to yes,” Collins said of conservatives. “We built them a bridge. They don’t want to cross the bridge. The problem is with the Freedom Caucus.”
He specifically pointed to the difference between the actions and words of Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), and Collins said that if Vice President Mike Pence couldn’t get a deal done, no one could. Pence has been tight with House conservatives since his days on the Hill.
They keep moving the goal posts.... The problem is with the Freedom Caucus. Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), a member of the moderate Tuesday Group
The administration and GOP leadership have seemed to rest their fate in Pence’s hands, believing that his relationships with lawmakers and his position as the vice president would seal the deal.
Meanwhile, moderates and conservatives told HuffPost on Wednesday that congressional leadership’s absence from the negotiations ― particularly Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) ― has been noticeable.
“He clearly doesn’t believe it’s going to get done,” one member said of Ryan. “How’s that for leadership?”
The one member of leadership with the greatest grasp of the vote problem, Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), called the changes to the health care bill “a bridge too far.” And he seemed to indicate that he himself would oppose a bill that didn’t protect people with pre-existing conditions.
“My family history is really bad. And so my understanding of the impact of insurance regs is real,” McHenry said, according to Bloomberg. “I’m a conservative. So I look at this, understand the impact of regulation, but also the impact of really bad practices in the insurance marketplace prior to the ACA passing.”
And if you wanted a signal of just how bad the blood is between leadership and the Freedom Caucus, an HFC aide pointed out that McHenry co-sponsored an Obamacare repeal that would have done away with those pre-existing condition protections.
So with leadership out, and with Trump unwilling to expend much of his own political capital on the issue, it’s on Pence and individual members to work out a deal. But the chasm between individual members is vast, and Pence doesn’t have any ability to close it. In fact, Pence doesn’t seem to have won over anyone who wasn’t already going to be a yes, and the administration’s neophyte lobbying has only exacerbated the vote problems.
One Freedom Caucus member told HuffPost that a meeting between Pence and the HFC on the day that Republicans were supposed to take a vote two weeks ago only solidified oppositions to the bill. When White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told the Freedom Caucus they had no choice but to support the legislation, one member reportedly replied: “You know, the last time someone ordered me to something, I was 18 years old. And it was my daddy. And I didn’t listen to him, either.”
Even a meeting with Trump seemed to crystallize the opposition when he met with the Freedom Caucus. According to one Freedom Caucus member, Trump told the group to not worry about “the little shit.”
“I just want to win,” Trump continued, according to the member.
That just illustrated to members that Trump wasn’t serious about the policy, wasn’t familiar with the issues and couldn’t be trusted to get the bill right.
The administration’s strategy has also come off as bizarre to moderates, as Pence tries to mostly deal with Tuesday Group members who were already supportive of the health care bill.
Tuesday Group Chairman Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) has basically been shut out of negotiations because he came out in opposition to the bill. But if you’re trying to flip votes, doesn’t it make sense to persuade people who are on the no side?
“They’re trying to get people in the Freedom Caucus from no to yes,” Dent told HuffPost on Wednesday, figuring that as long as they can flip the HFC and not lose the moderates they currently have, they can disregard trying to flip those other moderates who have publicly come out against the bill.
Dent agreed it was an unusual strategy.
But is is an effective one?
Dent put it this way: “They usually don’t negotiate with yes votes.”