WASHINGTON ― As House Republicans try to revive their ill-fated health care bill, leaders are stepping back from the negotiations, allowing factions of the GOP conference to work out differences among themselves even as some groups are questioning whether they should be negotiating at all.
On Wednesday, the Tuesday Group, a collection of about 50 moderate Republicans, was in talks to meet with the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about three dozen conservatives, and discuss what changes both sides could swallow. But that meeting fell through after some Tuesday Group members argued within their caucus that the HFC wasn’t acting in good faith.
“We have never negotiated with the Freedom Caucus,” Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), a member of the Tuesday Group, told reporters on Thursday. “There was never a meeting scheduled with the Freedom Caucus. We will never meet with the Freedom Caucus, because it’s not appropriate for a group of ad hoc members.”
Collins added that if the Freedom Caucus calls to negotiate, members of the Tuesday Group should “just hang up.”
House Republicans tried to avoid discussing the botched meeting on Thursday, with Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) staying mum about the situation and Tuesday Group Co-chairman Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) also declining to discuss the breakdown.
“I’d rather not chat about it,” MacArthur told The Huffington Post when we approached him Thursday. “Let me walk. Let me walk. I talk to you guys when I have something to say. This morning, I’d rather not say anything.”
Meanwhile, the Republican Study Committee ― another larger but less conservative group that is also involved in the negotiations ― is trying to act as a “big brother,” according to RSC Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.).
“There’s some trust that has to be rebuilt around here,” Walker said, though he declined to get into specifics.
Moderates seem increasingly worried that conservatives may try to shift the blame of the health care bill’s failure on them, as President Donald Trump continues to lay into the Freedom Caucus on Twitter.
“The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” the president of the United States tweeted from his personal account Thursday morning.
But plenty of moderates were against the health care bill ― and despite the narrative from Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that Republicans were just a few votes short, and that conservatives in the Freedom Caucus were the only Republicans opposed, the dissent in fact ran much deeper.
The member with perhaps the clearest sense of the votes, House Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), told HuffPost on Wednesday that he doesn’t see the bill moving right now. “A lot has to be resolved, and I don’t think anything will happen quickly,” he said.
Leaders affirmed Thursday that they would not, as some members were discussing, bring up the bill for a vote next week. But leaders also don’t seem to think they need to start over. Even McHenry thinks the framework of the existing GOP health care bill will remain intact. It’s just not clear whether tweaks can get conservatives there.
There are some Freedom Caucus members who, granted anonymity, sound more willing to accept a deal ― particularly with the continued criticism from Trump. Meadows, the HFC chairman, has seemed to take the Trump attacks particularly personally. He says he desperately wants to find a deal that would lower premiums in the GOP health care bill. But at the same time, he doesn’t seem likely to strike an agreement just because Trump wants him to.
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Meadows told HuffPost Wednesday, summoning Thomas Paine. “It’s all about ‘Who do you serve?’ And the question has to be answered with ‘The people who elected us and sent us to Washington, D.C.’”
Meadows said that all Freedom Caucus members want to be a “yes” on the health care bill, “but just to change positions and be a ‘yes’ without any real changes is not something that’s defensible back home.”
As of now, the Freedom Caucus’ demands haven’t changed. They want to eliminate the essential health benefits ― a list of 10 items that insurers must cover, like maternity care and lab services ― and strike certain provisions in Title I of the Affordable Care Act, like coverage guarantees and community rating, which prevents health insurers from varying premiums based on certain factors.
At this point, it’s possible every Freedom Caucus member who would vote yes on the health care bill without those changes has already come out in support, despite the insistence from members that everyone is trying to “get to yes.”
“I’m in those meetings,” Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), who supports the bill, said. “I can tell you, everybody wants to get to yes. Everybody has a different threshold, though.”
Perhaps one of the highest thresholds is that of Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.).
“I don’t know why anyone would be eager to get to yes,” Amash said Wednesday. “People back home can’t stand this bill.”
(For the record, Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican who is not a member of the Freedom Caucus but who holds similar views on the bill, reported Wednesday that he was trying to get back to no. “Yeah, I’ve been on the ‘Hell No,’” Massie said.)
As for Amash, he thinks constituents want Republicans to try “something totally different.” As Republicans hear from their constituents over the Easter break, he predicts, GOP opposition to the bill will only get louder.
Despite Trump’s jabs at the Freedom Caucus, when members went back to their districts over the weekend, the reception from constituents was mostly positive. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) noted that while people kept urging him to continue to work to repeal the Affordable Care Act, constituents were happy he took a hard-line position.
“I got thanked at the airport. I got thanked at church. I got thanked at the grocery store. I got thanked everywhere I went for taking a tough stance,” Labrador said.
He said he was optimistic that Republicans would reach a solution, but that Republicans would have to work with different factions and individual members to find a palatable agreement. “It’s not just about the factions,” Labrador said. “There are members who belong to no faction that also hated this bill.”
But GOP leaders ― and the White House ― have mostly taken a back seat, content to let members work out their differences among themselves for the time being.
That may be because leaders believe Republicans are still far off from a solution. Or it might be because they want to keep as far away from the negotiations as possible, with some leaders fearing that things could blow up and Ryan and his underlings would make for an obvious group to blame.
For now, everyone is waiting to see what the individual caucuses can come up with. But if the Tuesday Group is really intent on not meeting with the Freedom Caucus, and the Freedom Caucus has a collection of members who believe Republicans need to start over, and leadership believes they only need a few tweaks ― how close can Republicans be to finding agreement on a health care bill?
On Thursday, Ryan himself embraced the contradictions when he told reporters that 90 percent of the 237-member conference supports the health care bill, which ― if true ― means that Republicans are only one or two votes shy of a passing threshold.
When asked if he would commit to bringing up the bill for a vote at some point in the future, Ryan said he would not make that promise.