Hill Republicans appear closer to passing ObamaCare overhaul, but not close enough

There was a seismic shift on the health care bill at the Capitol this week.

House Republicans tweaked the measure to garner more support.

The gambit proved successful.

“It switched me from a ‘hell no’ to just a ‘no,’ ” Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., declared about his newfound affinity for the legislation. “That’s progress.”

Massie’s move pretty much summed up where members stand on the Republican health care bill, or the so-called ObamaCare overhaul plan.

The House GOP leadership brass and President Trump tried valiantly to lug the package across the finish line this week to coincide with Trump’s 100 days in office. The president hits that temporal marker sans a single, major legislative victory. Approving the health care bill this week would have festooned a major jewel in his policy crown.

But it never happened.

“(The bill’s) still got problems. Go read the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) report,” Massie said.

Massie may be a Republican the GOP brass could never entice to vote for the legislation.

But they’ve sure tried others. Rep. Dan Donovan, R-N.Y., is a moderate GOPer and the only Republican in Congress who represents parts of New York City. Donovan has known Trump for decades and spoke had voiced his concerns to the president.

Donovan says he’s even more emboldened to cast a nay ballot now.

“I’m concerned about what was going to happen with seniors, allowing insurance companies to charge seniors as much as five times as a young, healthy person rather than three times as much in the law now,” he said.

Donovan thinks the Republican leadership has abandoned trying to lure him to vote yes and has moved to more commutable targets.

A week ago today, House Republicans pressed iPhones to their ears from youth baseball diamonds, dialed-in from airplanes over Asia and listened on old-fashioned, beige, hard-line telephones in their living rooms.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., summoned rank-and-file members from their two-plus week recess to a conference call on how to fund the government and what’s next on health care reform.

“What’s noteworthy is how un-newsworthy it was,” complained one House Republican.

“It was kind of vague,” observed another.

Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.; Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Oregon; and Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., took no questions from their fellow Republicans for fear someone could record the call and leak it to the press.

Ryan told rank-and-file GOPers that they wouldn’t vote on health care until they were confident they had the votes to pass the revamped bill.

But Ryan didn’t want lawmakers looking past the biggest issue in front of them: government funding. Money to run the government expired in less than a week. So Ryan reminded his members the priority now wasn’t health care, but avoiding a government shutdown. After all, a government shutdown would be a monstrous disaster -- especially if it corresponded with the close of Trump’s first 100 days.

Ryan said there would be more conversations when Republicans returned to Washington. They hoped for updated bill text on a plan drafted by Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J.

A vote this week? Doubtful. But maybe, just maybe, if they could cobble together the votes.

Republicans sent around a draft of the MacArthur amendment to lawmakers and reporters Tuesday night to kick start the foundering measure. MacArthur’s idea gave states the right to deem what health care benefits are essential for coverage plans. Conservatives viewed exempting more services as a way to lower costs.

Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus praised MacArthur’s provision and publicly endorsed the package.

“While the revised version still does not fully repeal Obamacare, we are prepared to support it to keep our promise to the American people to lower health care costs,” read a caucus statement.

Things appeared to be moving in the right direction for Republicans.

“I know there’s a lot of noise about this bill. There is a lot of fear,” MacArthur said. “My goal was to bridge the divide to try to get the people who were against the bill to be in favor of it.”

Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the House GOP’s chief deputy whip who helps round up the votes for major issues, said: “This is wonderful news.”

So when would the House conduct a roll call vote on the retrenched measure?

“It’s now just an issue of timing,” McHenry said.

By Wednesday night, things were in motion. Senior White House sources predicted that the House Rules Committee, the way station for legislation en route to the House floor, would prep the bill Thursday for a vote Friday or even Saturday.

House Republicans often tout what they characterize as a “three day rule,” granting members 72 hours to review legislation before a vote.

The rule hardly has anything to do with 72 hours. It’s more like the “24 hour and two seconds” rule. The majority party aims to post the text of bills over parts of three days before voting. In other words, the House could present a bill at 11:59:59 p.m. one day, let the next day pass and vote on at 12:00:01 a.m. the third day.

Sure enough, updates on the health care legislation popped up on the House website just before midnight Wednesday. That meant a Friday vote could be in the offing.

The Capitol was a maelstrom of rumors Thursday about the health care plan. In one 30-minute period, various, reliable sources told Fox News that the health care vote would come that night, Friday, Saturday or next week.

But House Republicans didn’t whip the health care bill Thursday. The whip team checked in with members to see whether they would vote yes on the interim spending measure to avoid a government shutdown that week.

Republicans were initially wary that they could advance the stopgap plan on their own without Democratic assistance. House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, Maryland, warned Republicans he would advise fellow Democrats to vote nay on the spending plan if the GOP announced its “intention to bring the harmful Trumpcare bill to the House floor (Friday) or Saturday.”

After tallying votes on the stopgap bill, GOPers were confident they could pass it on their own if necessary. And while they didn’t formally whip the health care bill, Republicans spent a lot of time working on reluctant members.

“We know where everyone stands on health care,” said one senior Republican source. “We told members to check in with us if they’re going to change their vote.”

Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., one of the most conservative members of the House, was one such vote switcher.

“I’m a yes,” Yoho conceded. “Under duress.”

Duress? Were GOP leaders beating him down, wearing him out with cajoling and arm-twisting? Hardly. Yoho said he was just being pragmatic.

“As that great, English philosopher Mick Jagger said, ‘You can’t always get what you want,’” waxed the sophist Yoho. “‘But if you try sometime, you might get what you need.’ ”

It’s unclear if other House Republicans quoted Roger Daltrey and The Who: “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

Yoho and other conservatives asserted that perhaps Republicans just needed to pass a bill -- any bill -- to keep the process alive.

“We’ve got to do something,” said one conservative who didn’t want to be identified and was leaning toward voting yes. “It’s not great. But we’ve got to just pass the dang-gum thing.”

Back in March, a coalition of moderate and conservative Republicans forced Republicans to yank an earlier version of the health care bill off the floor.

MacArthur’s legislative engineering appeared to court many conservatives, giving the House a fighting chance to move the bill. But changes to the legislation now inflamed moderate GOPers.

Republicans enjoy one small advantage this time. Back in March, 216 yeas was the magic number to pass legislation in the House. At that point, the House only had 430 members and five vacancies. The special election win by Rep. Ron Estes, R-Kansas, to assume the seat of current CIA Director Mike Pompeo added one seat to the House population.

The winning threshold is still 216 yeas. But with Estes, Republicans upped their membership from 237 members to 238. That means the GOP can lose up to 22 votes on their side and still pass a bill (presuming a razor-thin 216-215 roll call vote). Last month, the difference was 21 votes for Republicans.

Estes hasn’t publicly committed to supporting the bill. However, there could be another problem for Republicans. House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, is on the verge of resigning.

He was out this week for foot surgery. And his absence could take the margin back to 21 votes for Republicans. But coupled with other absences, the real boundary could be just 18 or 19 GOP noes.

That’s not a lot of wiggle room.

The Republican leadership convened an 8:30 p.m. huddle Thursday night to talk about the spending bill and where they stood with health care.

The House Rules Committee already teed-up a pathway to bring the stopgap bill to the floor Friday. But the Rules panel recessed, waiting for marching orders on health care. If Republicans thought they had the votes, they could add the health care plan to the Rules Committee docket late Thursday night.

But it wasn’t to be.

“We are not voting on health care tomorrow,” McCarthy said when he emerged from the late-night conclave.

Democrats peppered Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, with questions about health care later once his panel reconvened at 10:35 p.m.

“We’re going to try to measure three times and saw once,” Sessions said. “A lot of people around this town have tried their best to try to rush it, rush it, rush it.”

However, he told Democrats that Republicans were “having a fun time speaking about it with each other.”

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., inquired with Sessions about the prospects for bringing the health care bill up next week.

“It will be a definite maybe,” Sessions replied.