“Back to the drawing board,” quipped Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) after a long lunch meeting behind closed doors with the full Republican caucus.
Leadership is calling for a vote next week on a bill that would repeal the Affordable Care Act with no replacement ready at hand. The move would give cover to conservative senators who want to go home and tell their constituents they did their best to keep seven years of promises to kill Obamacare, and to moderate senators who want to tell voters they voted to save their Medicaid and tax credits. But with three members staunchly opposed and a fourth in the hospital, the move is almost certain to fail.
“It’s hard,” Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), whose job is it to muster the votes, laughed wearily Tuesday afternoon. When asked what will change between now and the vote, he ducked into an elevator and called out to reporters as the golden doors slid shut: “The passage of time.”
By mid-week, the debate had devolved into a vigorous round of finger-pointing, with lawmakers blaming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Democrats, moderate Republicans, a bad legislative process, and bad policy proposals for their failure to come together on any health care plan.
“When you go home, nobody is really for this bill, the McConnell approach,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters in his usual dry drawl. “I haven’t had one person say, ‘Hey, I like this bill.'”
Despite the Senate’s long, ingrained tradition of respect for leadership, Graham was not the only lawmaker to openly torch McConnell.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who earlier this week accused McConnell of a “real breach of trust,” vented Tuesday: “This was the responsibility of Senate leadership. This was in our court, and we should have handled this.” Asked who in particular in leadership bore the responsibility, he said wryly: “You tell me who wrote the bill and then I think you know.”
Other Republican senators cast blame on the four (and counting) moderate defectors who are threatening to tank the bill that would repeal Obamacare now and replace it at a later date.
“Most of those people promised to repeal Obamacare and they ought to keep their word,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) grumbled Tuesday. “Everybody’s frustrated. A lot of us are, because we’ve got a few people runnin’ on us.”
Sen. John Thune (R-SD) echoed this gripe, telling reporters: “We just have a lot of people who don’t want to get to yes.”
Republicans’ inability to agree on why, despite controlling the House, Senate, and White House, they have after seven months been unable to repeal Obamacare does not bode well for their prospects for rallying around a plan going forward.
No path forward
On Tuesday, after a disastrous lunch meeting on health care that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) euphemistically described as “spirited,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) gave reporters a colorful metaphor to illustrate Republicans’ lack of cohesion on health care policy.
“The majority leader is trying to keep all the frogs in the wheelbarrow, and it’s a tough job,” she said, grinning.
There is no sign those frogs will settle down any time soon.
Since Republicans took full control of the federal government, almost no progress has been made on bridging the deep divide on health care policy that separates the party’s far-right from its centrist, swing state members. While many GOP lawmakers say the federal government should have no role at all in health care, leaving it completely up to states and the free market, others argue it’s the federal government’s obligation to create protections and a safety net for its most vulnerable citizens. Consensus is also elusive on the basic questions of who deserves Medicaid and what kind of insurance is real insurance.
“Our caucus is not cohesive,” Shelby sighed on Tuesday. “Our caucus is not together. I thought they would be by now.”
While leadership, backed by President Trump, demands a vote on repeal-and-delay, other Republicans are pleading with their leadership to go back to square one, hold public hearings on a new bill, and reach across the aisle to work with Democrats.
“I think that what we need to do is go back to the committee room, it’s where we should have started, and work on a bipartisan basis,” Murkowski said. “What has to happen is the Republicans have to admit that some of the things in the ACA we actually liked, and the Democrats have to admit that some of the things that they voted for in the ACA are broken and need to be fixed. And we need to come together, in open committee, we need to hash it through, take up amendments, and try to build a consensus product.”
While several rank-and-file Republicans expressed tepid support for that approach, and some bipartisan working groups have already sprung up, there seems to be little to no appetite from Republican leaders for reaching across the aisle.
The art of the dodge
Amid their latest bill’s collapse and ensuing chaos, and without a clear answer for what happens next, Republicans went to even more creative and extensive lengths than usual to avoid questions from reporters.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), who late Monday night along with Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) stuck the final knife in the moribund bill, ran across the tracks of the subway in the Senate’s basement, prompting many jokes about health care being the true “third rail” of politics. Up on the second floor, where dozens of reporters lined the tiled and marbled halls, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) pretended to take a phone call from President Donald Trump, advising him loudly that “the better approach is to get the hell out of here.” White House chief of staff Reince Preibus, who along with Vice President Mike Pence came to the Capitol for the health care strategy luncheon, was spotted hiding behind a trash can.
— David Wright (@DavidWright_CNN) July 18, 2017
Others took a more traditional approach. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), asked repeatedly by reporters tailing him through the Capitol’s underground tunnels if he would support proceeding on a repeal-only bill when it comes up for a vote later this week, clenched his jaw, stared straight ahead and did not acknowledge the questions.