There was supposed to be a death panel when it came to ObamaCare: Congressional Republicans.
Starting in 2009, Republicans in Congress promised to euthanize the then-bill, later law. They’d kill it. “Repeal and replace” was the GOP mantra as the party stormed the House in the 2010 midterm elections.
Republicans echoed the incantation in 2012 and 2014. The “repeal and replace” declaration even helped Republicans capture the Senate in 2014. The House and Senate voted on a bill to repeal and replace ObamaCare in 2015-16. But President Obama vetoed it.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., argued that’s why it was essential that voters reward the party with “unified government.”
“I’m tired of divided government,” Ryan said. “It doesn’t work very well.”
The speaker never thought President Trump would make it to the White House. He feared Trump’s lewd, “Access Hollywood” tape wound sandbag GOP House and Senate candidates across the country. Trump was the GOP presidential nominee and slated to speak at a political rally in the battleground state of Wisconsin the day after the tape materialized.
Ryan fretted about what Trump’s appearance on the stage would mean for himself and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., locked in a competitive re-election campaign, as control of the Senate swung in the balance.
The speaker disinvited candidate Trump.
But Ryan is a pragmatist. When Trump captured the White House, the GOP maintained control of the Senate and Democrats barely dented the Republican majority in the House.
Ryan’s vision of unified government became a reality. With unified government, Republicans could repeal and replace ObamaCare, undo dozens of Obama-era policies and finally retrench the tax code.
It was easy to vote dozens of times to repeal ObamaCare when Republicans used dummy ammunition on a target practice range that doubles as the House floor. But as soon as the ordnance went live, it blew up in their faces.
Republicans have never held a roll call vote in the House to replace the 2010 health care law known since the party took control in 2011. The Senate never held a roll call vote on an ObamaCare replacement plan since taking the majority in that chamber in 2015.
That streak remains intact today. Republicans have never agreed on any health care replacement plan that would pass the House and Senate.
It’s not hard to decipher the code around Capitol Hill if you know what to look for.
The House Rules Committee -- the gateway for legislation to the House floor -- met for nearly 13 hours Wednesday without setting the groundwork for the chamber to consider the GOP health care bill for debate Thursday.
“The deal hasn’t been cut yet,” bemoaned committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, just before midnight Wednesday.
Ryan and the rest of his leadership team conducted a lengthy conclave in his office Wednesday night with members of the “Tuesday Group,” an amalgam of 54 moderate Republicans led by Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent.
Most everyone then escaped out a back exit to elude a throng of press waiting in the hallway. Dent’s office quickly published a statement declaring his opposition to the health care package. The usually-genial Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, speed-walked out the front, ignoring reporters’ questions and not even making eye contact.
But the reticence spoke volumes. Many moderates were disgusted.
“It’s a terrible deal. Leadership is asking the Tuesday Group to vote for it so leadership doesn’t look bad for pulling the bill,” lamented one member who requested anonymity. “Members are asked to walk the plank.”
Moderate Republicans faced the most exposure on this bill and could pay with their seats if they voted yea.
Meantime, negotiations continued with the conservative House Freedom Caucus. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, top adviser Steve Bannon and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney (who co-founded the caucus when he served in Congress) descended on Capitol Hill for a short meeting Thursday night with all House Republicans.
“Let’s vote,” Bannon said.
“It’s up to those guys in there,” said Mulvaney, jerking his head over his right shoulder toward Republicans huddled in a conference room in the basement of the Capitol.
“You heard a lot of members tonight express their passion about getting this done,” said House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., afterwards. When asked if he was still whipping the vote, Scalise replied, “We will have more conversations tonight.”
Several senior House GOP sources made clear that the administration was responsible for converting nays to yeas. Some House Republican leadership figures and White House sources openly lit into the Freedom Caucus, saying there was an effort to “isolate” those members for never budging.
“Nothing’s changed,” sighed exhausted caucus leader Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., after the meeting. “I’m not confident in anything right now. All I’m confident in is I’m going home to go to bed.”
People weren’t home in bed very long. Updated bill text arrived just before midnight Thursday, courting the likes of some moderates.
GOP Reps. Tom MacArthur, N.J.; Martha McSally, Ariz.; Elise Stefanik, N.Y.; and Tim Murphy, Pennsylvania, all applauded the changes. The Rules Committee scheduled a 7 a.m. meeting to prepare the updated bill for the floor Friday.
“The directive to us last night was to put our pencils down and turn our papers in,” said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, as the House GOP prepared the health care bill for debate.
But something was amiss.
Vice President Pence was slated to head to Little Rock, Ark., and Memphis, Tenn., on Friday morning.
But the vice president cancelled the trip on little notice, and motored to the GOP’s “Capitol Hill Club,” a hangout just behind the Cannon House Office Building. A secretive huddle with members of the Freedom Caucus at the Capitol Hill Club would avoid reporters streaming through the Capitol.
Ryan then dashed off to the White House to meet with the president.
There would be no need for either event if the vote count was solid.
The magic number to pass a bill in the House was 216, with 430 sitting members and five vacancies. The number necessary for passage was expected to be a little lower as there are always absences. (Hey, you try getting 430 people in the same room at the same time). Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., was out because his wife passed away.
The House usually conducts a series of “bed check” votes ahead of major issues on the floor. Such votes are often on parliamentary issues or non-controversial bills.
The checks enable leaders to determine how many members are actually present that day and also do final assessments of where members stand on an issue. On those roll calls, the total of members voting ranged between 422, 424 and 420. That meant the threshold to pass the health care bill could be 212, 213 or 211 yeas.
But the House was never within striking distance. If Republicans were within a vote or two, the GOP brass might be able to lug it across the finish line. But this bill was going to fail. Forging ahead with a roll call vote would put a lot of members on the record on a bill destined for the dust heap.
“It is going to be tattooed to you,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., warned Republicans on Wednesday night at the Rules Committee, looking in the GOP direction of the dais.
Everyone knew the gig was up around 3:30 p.m. et Friday. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., presided over the House and recessed the chamber “subject to the call of the chair.”
The term means the House is out but will meet again at an undetermined time. If everything was set, they’d hold the vote.
TV monitors all around the Capitol flipped onto a graphic known as the “screen of death.” The picture shows the Capitol Dome with a waving U.S. flag. The words “The House is in recess subject to the call of the chair” are emblazoned across the top.
The exercise underscored that the internecine schisms that divided Republicans during the presidential election and under the tutelage of former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, still remain.
Some members think Boehner was no longer effective. Members of the Freedom Caucus helped nudge his departure in October 2015. Would things be different under Ryan?
Maybe. But not really. New speaker. Same membership.
Boehner often engineered a coalition of Democrats and Republicans to pass major legislation. Avoiding a government shutdown. Wrestling with the debt ceiling. But no Democrat was going to vote to repeal and replace ObamaCare. Republicans were on their own. And without help from the other side of the aisle, Ryan could never get to 216, 213, 212 or even 211 yeas.
“We had roughly 200 votes,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Oregon, one of the authors of the GOP health care bill.
The question now is how much political capital did Republicans exhaust in this effort? They have to fund the government by April 28. A fight over the debt ceiling looms. Trump, Ryan and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, say now it’s on to tax reform.
Damage for Ryan?
When Boehner resigned, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., surfaced at the Capitol one day and spoke of what led to Boehner’s exit.
“In the leadership, you take on barnacles like a ship at sea and they start to weight you down after battle,” said Lott, bounced from his post in 2002. “Once you get in the leadership, there ain’t no such thing as purity.”
Ryan’s ship certainly accumulated major barnacles in this fight.
And ObamaCare remains.
That’s because Republicans have divided government. Yes, they have the House, Senate and White House. But the GOP remains fractured and fratricidal.
So why was “repeal and replace” such an effective campaign tool for Republicans?
Perhaps it’s just that. A great campaign tool. Kind of like tax reform. What lawmaker doesn’t campaign on lowering taxes? Yet no major updates to the tax code in decades. How about abortion? Settled law. But both sides campaign on the issue and little changes.
Gun control? Democrats invoke the Columbine, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino and Orlando shooting massacres. A crazed gunman shot former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., in the head -- ironically delaying the House GOP’s first vote to repeal ObamaCare in January 2011. Yet the firearms issue hasn’t evolved much since 1994. Both sides deploy guns as a campaign issue.
And so here we are with repealing and replacing ObamaCare.
The screen of death flashed on TV monitors all over the Capitol Friday afternoon. Repealing and replacing Obamacare was dead. And by nightfall, some Republican lawmakers were blasting out statements, pledging to continue the repeal and replace fight.
Campaign 2018 had begun.