Tierney Sneed contributed reporting.
Congressional Republicans had originally intended to return to their districts for the April recess riding high on the victory of fulfilling their years-long promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Instead, they are returning empty-handed, and will spend the next two weeks hammered by negative TV ads, inundated by frustrated constituents from all sides of the political spectrum, and forced to explain why they haven’t been able to pass a bill—or even finish writing one—despite control of both chambers of Congress and the White House.
“It’s not the best spot to be in,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) admitted to TPM last week. “We are the governing majority, and they kind of expect us to say, ‘This is what we plan to do.’ It will be reasonable and understandable if my constituents demonstrate a level of frustration when I come back.”
On their last day in session before recess, on Thursday, House Republicans unveiled yet another major tweak to the health care bill, rushed it through a committee markup, and tried to treat it as a major step on the road to passing a health care bill.
“Everybody likes to see some progress,” Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) told TPM the day the amendment was introduced, just before leaving Washington. “I’ve always been very open with my district about where we’re at, but this gives me another talking point.”
“It’s momentum,” insisted Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH). “It certainly doesn’t hurt.”
Behind the scenes, however, Republicans admit they have no viable plan to bring moderates and conservatives together. The latest proposal to attempt to bridge the gap would funnel people with serious illnesses and other pre-existing conditions into something resembling state high-risk pools, which would receive $15 billion over a 9-year period in federal subsidies—far less than the most conservative estimates for how much would be needed to cover that population.
The amendment, unveiled just a couple hours before an emergency session of the House Rules Committee on Thursday, angered the committee’s Democrats, who accused Republicans of putting on a cynical show for political cover.
“I guess you don’t want to go home for recess without a win, if you can even claim this is a win,” scoffed Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA).
A Republican source admitted as much to Fox News, saying the last-minute amendment was “all about saving face.” Another labeled the effort “a lot of noise” and “busywork.”
This latest proposal was drafted by two members of the Freedom Caucus, who argued it would bring down insurance premiums on the individual market by taking high-cost sick people out of the equation. Yet moderates told TPM they were concerned the proposal would mean unaffordable or lower quality health insurance for people with pre-existing conditions, and many conservatives feel the bill still does not do enough to curtail federal control of the health care system.
“I think we will find a path forward, but if the question is if I see one, no, I do not,” admitted Freedom Caucus member Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA). “If I saw one, I would have already proposed it.”
Griffith and other Republican members insisted to reporters that time away from Washington would help them reach an agreement on health care after weeks of late night meetings, threats from President Trump, and last-minute amendments failed to produce a bill with any hope of passing the House.
“You need a cooling off period,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), Republicans’ chief deputy whip. “You need people to stop, take a deep breath, and think through the way to yes.”
But many lawmakers said it will be a major challenge for members to go home to their districts without progress to show.
“I wish we could stay and fix it,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), one of the conservative holdouts on the bill. “But looking at the polls, people were not happy with the last bill anyway. So I’m not going to get yelled at.”
Rep. Steve King (R-IA) told reporters members are about to walk into “a pressure cooker” that could make it even harder for Republicans to agree on a plan going forward.
“Some of the folks, Republicans from the Northeast, they’re going to go home and they’re going to hear from their constituents,” he said. “And then others, some of the Freedom Caucus guys, will go home, and they’re more likely to be reinforced at home.”
Adding to the pressure cooker environment are plans by the national political organizing group Indivisible to keep the heat on Republicans over recess, packing nearly 70 town halls across the country to demand an end to the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Angel Padilla, the co-founder of Indivisible, told TPM he believes the health care bill’s failure the first time around was “huge victory” and a testament to the power of constituents pushing back. In particular, the group takes credit for pressuring several key Republicans from swing states to come out in opposition to the bill, including Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), Leonard Lance (R-NJ), and Barbara Comstock (R-VA).
“We want to see those moderates hold and not vote to take away health care,” he said. “We want to see them do the right thing.”
In a series of raucous town halls over Congress’ February recess, Republicans received a great deal of blowback over their plan to repeal Obamacare, which House members admitted was a major factor in scaring members away from supporting it and prompting GOP leaders to cancel the vote.
But Padilla says instead of gloating about helping to tank the repeal effort, citizens need to stay engaged and take every opportunity to give their members of Congress hell.
“We know the fight isn’t over,” he said. “Republicans and this president are not going to give up on this stuff, so the pressure needs to stay on. People need to keep showing up. So this week, they’re going to hear from a lot of people who don’t want to lose their health care and don’t want an erosion of benefits.”