Capitol Hill hijinks over long-awaited ObamaCare bill signals GOP urgency, hunt for votes

The late, great Leonard Nimoy of “Star Trek” fame later hosted the syndicated TV show “In Search Of …” back in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The program probed the mysterious and paranormal. The show examined phenomena like Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, UFO’s, ghosts, the Bermuda Triangle and whatever happened to Amelia Earhart.

Like Nimoy, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and a coterie of Democrats embarked on their own supernatural expedition at the U.S. Capitol this week. Their quarry was seemingly as spectral as the phantasms depicted on “In Search Of ...” In particular, Paul was in search of a draft of legislation to replace ObamaCare.

Paul’s quest led him to room H-157 on the first floor of the Capitol on Thursday. Two uniformed, U.S. Capitol Police officers guarded the door alongside a plainclothes detail officer. Naturally, the super-sensitive nature of the bill necessitated the police presence-lest some Congressional highwayman like Paul come along and try to filch the measure.

Only the bill wasn’t there.

The room is the Capitol office of House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. She lent use of her hovel to Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker as a holding space. Walker met earlier that day with rank-and-file Republicans. The officers were there to protect Walker, not the bill.

But the optic of officers standing outside the otherwise innocuous-looking passageway only amplified Paul’s contrived intrigue.

But this is Capitol Hill. The biggest soundstage on the planet. And with the press in tow and cameras rolling, an enterprise like Paul’s to locate the bill can devolve into boffo theatre. That’s when a Paul staffer wheeled up a portable Xerox machine to potentially photocopy sections of the legislation – in case the senator ever got his hands on the bill.

Paul knocked on the door and an aide to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, materialized.

“I’d like a copy of the bill,” Paul said. “I’d like to read the Obamacare bill.”

But the aide turned away the senator as reporters peppered him with questions.

“I think there’s a bill in there,” Paul proffered. “This is being protected as though this is a plot to invade another country.”

“Whose office is this?” asked one reporter.

“It’s the secret office for the secret bill,” Paul said.

It was nothing of the sort.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.,  and Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., showed up at the same office later.

The Democrats orchestrated a deeper raid than Paul into McMorris Rodgers’ sanctum. But alas, their quest came up empty as well.

Before his scavenger hunt, Hoyer engaged House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.,  on the House floor about the location of the bill.

“Can I see the bill today?” Hoyer asked of McCarthy.

“You’re not on that committee,” McCarthy responded. “So you can look it up when we mark it up.”

Paul doesn’t like whatever Republicans are cobbling together. He has his own plan. Democrats certainly don’t like the GOP effort. So they’re happy to portray Republicans as crafting the legislation in the dark of night.

During a recent interview on Fox, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., scoffed at suggestions that the GOP is covertly writing and hiding the bill.

“Give me a break,” he protested. “This bill will go through the committee process. It will go under regular order. That’s precisely the most transparent way to do business. That’s opposite of what Democrats did in 2009.”

What Ryan and many Republicans forget is that three House committees each held lengthy, transparent “mark-up” sessions to write the Democrats’ initial version of the legislation in 2009. The meetings in fact ran late. One gaveled down just before dawn. But Democrats did it by the book, despite allegations to the contrary.

“We can’t be hypocritical for going after Democrats for a lack of transparency,” argued Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C.

Ryan and McCarthy will probably make Congressman Walker and the likes of Paul and Hoyer happy. House Republicans are likely to publicize initial text of the legislation in the coming days and move through a series of “mark-up” sessions in the Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means committees.

But there’s a reason why everyone’s in search of the ObamaCare replacement bill and can’t yet find it: The legislation’s not done.

“We’re updating our drafts on a daily basis,” said Brady earlier in the week. “It’s a little bit like turning a Rubik’s Cube.”

Brady noted that leaked drafts were out of date. And he said the bill’s authors remain “in a continuous loop” with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to attain “scores” or “price tags” of the legislation as lawmakers adjust the package.

Why such a close hold? The Republican brass doesn’t want sections of the bill bandied about K Street or in the press corps. Such a situation would give opponents time to mount specific opposition to provisions they don’t like. That could doom the bill.

If Rand Paul was in search of the ObamaCare replacement bill, Ryan is in search of 216 votes to approve the plan later this month on the House floor. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, indicated the chamber wants to advance the plan by “the Easter break.”

Time is of the essence because the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch will soon consume most of the Senate’s traffic.

The math is also important.

Return to the 216 figure. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke just resigned his House seat from Montana this week. That puts the House at 430 members and five vacancies due to resignations.

The current breakdown is 237 Republicans and 193 Democrats. That matrix means 216 is the magic number to pass bills in the House. It also means Republicans can only lose 21 votes on their side before legislation is likely to fail.

There’s not a lot of turning radius.

There are myriad reasons why Republicans could vote no. They include  the cost, tax provisions, concerns about leaving the sick in uninsured and having no true metric to determine whether the bill indeed lowers health costs or insures more people.

Many Republicans will demand input and try to change the bill through the committee or amendment process. Of course, alterations could determine who votes yes and who votes no. That could upset the delicate balance required to pass the bill.

“Our muscles have atrophied in general when it comes to legislating,” observed Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. “I think we are really good at letting leadership make the final decision of what the final bill is going to be. But that’s not the way Congress should work.”

Ryan’s strategy is to dare fellow Republicans to oppose the bill. In other words, Republicans campaigned for seven years to repeal and replace ObamaCare. Ryan’s betting that at least 216 Republicans will vote for whatever legislation the House spits out.

In other words, it’s now or never.

So the bill comes out soon. Lawmakers won’t have to engage in any more chimerical inquests to locate the legislation. But Ryan is in search of the votes to approve the package.

Creators of the TV show “In Search Of ...” knew some viewers might have issues with their takes on the supernatural and macabre subject matter. So they always opened the program with the following disclaimer:

“This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producers’ purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine.”

So where is the health care bill? There was a theory it was in the office of McMorris Rodgers. Is the bill finished? Well, that’s conjecture.

Are there UFO’s? The Loch Ness Monster exist? Are ghosts real? Who knows. But like the ObamaCare replacement bill, everyone’s in search of that, too.