This week, GOP leaders dubbed President Donald Trump “the Closer” and insisted he could win over dissenting Republicans and ensure the passage of the bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But the Closer didn’t close.
A half an hour before the bill was set to go to the floor on Friday, it was pulled, in a mercy-killing ensured by revolts in both the moderate and conservative wings of the party.
Now, in the wake of an embarrassing defeat, the White House and Republicans are pointing fingers at one another and scrambling to avoid blame.
For President Trump, the culprit was immediately “the Democrats,” despite the fact that Republicans control both chambers of Congress, and GOP lawmakers made clear from the outset that they planned to use a process that did not require Democratic votes. Those who played key roles in the effort also blamed the Freedom Caucus, the hardline conservative group with a proven record in derailing legislation. The hardliners, meanwhile, argued GOP leadership should have made the process more open to their concerns. The moderates who also resisted the bill were accused by some of chickening out.
Yet lawmakers walked very carefully in describing the role that President Trump—who has shown little interest in health policy—played in the bill’s demise.
“The private sector and the political realities are very different. They’re just so different,” Trump ally Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) admitted, talking to reporters Friday morning about the President’s failed hard sell. “This is the cold light of day coming forward to say: politics is not the private sector.”
Following Friday’s debacle, the Freedom Caucus had the biggest target on its back, given its its history of picking fights with its own party.
“This is not the first time that I’ve seen an issue of pretty significant magnitude get bogged down because of some fringe opposition,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR), one of many Republican leaders to criticize the hardline caucus.
“The Freedom Caucus wins. They get Obamacare forever,” Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) who chairs the subcommittee on Health under Energy and Commerce, grumbled when coming out of the conference meeting where members were told the bill was being pulled.
Collins, on Friday morning, called the group “three dozen members who don’t compromise.”
“They are still acting as though we’re an opposition party. We’ve been the opposition party for eight years, and the governing party for two months,” he said.
Yet members of the Freedom Caucus showed little remorse for their role in how things ended.
“It is a good day for America that we’ve had a very vigorous public policy debate,” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), a caucus member opposed to the bill, told reporters after it was pulled. “Sometimes those policy debates result in passage of legislation that’s good. Sometimes those policy debates result in the killing of bad legislation. In my judgment this was the killing of bad legislation, in which case it would be considering a good day for America.”
Fellow Freedom Caucus member Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) turned the finger back at House Speaker Paul Ryan and the rest of the leadership team, arguing that their approach to the bill “was not correct.”
“They said it was an open process, but when members had amendments that they wanted to see in the bill, they were told the amendments would be destructive to the process. That’s not how legislative bodies should work,” he said.
But lawmakers are not yet demanding Ryan lose his speakership, and many spent Friday defending him for trying his best.
“The speaker is a human being. He’s not Superman,” Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) told reporters. “There’s enough diversity in our conference and enough intensity on this issue that we didn’t quite get there.”
The bill was not brought down, it should be noted, by the Freedom Caucus alone. Moderates were uncomfortable throughout the process—some more vocally than others—and another late-in-the game concession to conservatives Thursday night pushed some to come out against the bill in the hours leading up to the vote.
“A bunch of the problems we are experiencing now are in my opinion are things that would have worked themselves out through a regular hearing process,” Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV), who opposed the bill because of how it affected his Medicaid expansion state, told reporters Friday morning.
Supporters of the bill, meanwhile, pointed out that many of the GOP opponents voted for 2015 legislation that was vetoed by President Obama that was even more aggressive than the bill pulled Friday.
Very few were willing to criticize Trump himself, and the commander in chief decided to place the blame on Democrats.
“We were very close; it was a very, very tight margin,” Trump said. “We had no Democrat support. We had no votes from the Democrats. They weren’t going to give us a single vote, so it’s a very difficult thing to do.”
In a press conference before it was announced that the bill was pulled, White House Press Secretary Secretary Sean Spicer preemptively absolved Trump of any blame, arguing that “the president and the team here have left everything on the field” and that “at the end of the day, you can’t force somebody to do something.”
“This isn’t a dictatorship,” Spicer said. “You can’t force someone to vote a certain way.”
Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.