It was nearly 3 am in the House Ways and Means Committee hearing room when the talk turned to Viagra.
The hearing was a mark-up for the Republican bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. It had been going for 16 hours. Democrats were still offering amendments to the bill. Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) was up, with a proposal to bar registered sex offenders from using their tax-advantaged Health Savings Accounts to pay for erectile dysfunction medication.
“I feel very strongly about this,” she said — but not strongly enough, she admitted, to vote for the bill if the amendment succeeded.
Her amendment died, like every other Democratic attempt to change or delay the bill. That was by design.
The mark-ups of the American Health Care Act, released earlier in the week by GOP leaders, started on Wednesday and ended on Thursday — in the wee hours for Ways and Means, and in the early afternoon for the Energy and Commerce Committee.
They were marathon sessions, engineered by Republicans not to amend the bill — which was tweaked just once in the two hearings combined — but to speed it toward a vote on the House floor. Democrats played along, trolling the majority with procedural tricks and proposed amendments, making the process as long and tedious as possible.
The final result was a show of force from a Republican majority that, by all other indications, appears fractured by the health plan — an early, albeit fragile, indication that the GOP’s strategy to rush the bill through Congress just might work.
Outside the walls of the House buildings on Capitol Hill, the bill appears to be on shaky ground, already panned by multiple factions of the Republican party. It has already lost the support of key lobbies like the American Medical Association and the AARP. Republican Sens. Susan Collins, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton have all voiced concerns — enough to sink it in the Senate.
But on Wednesday, the House committees showed no sign of GOP dissent, only discipline. Republicans in both rooms held united against Democratic amendments, and they voted in lock-step to advance the bill.
Partisan politics kept committees up all night
When Sanchez proposed her sex-offender amendment, for example, there was a moment when it appeared Republicans might agree to it. Then the committee chairman, Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, asked her a question.
“So if this amendment passes, you will be voting for the underlying bill?” he said.
Sanchez backtracked. She still had problems with the bill as a whole.
“So even though you feel so strongly about it, you will be voting against the bill in about an hour?” Brady pressed. “Another political gimmick,” he declared, advising Republicans to vote against the amendment.
Things weren’t much friendlier in Energy and Commerce. Chair Rep. Greg Walden (R-TX) had only spoken for six seconds before he was interrupted by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the committee’s ranking Democrat. Pallone wanted to extend his colleagues opening statements from three minutes to five minutes.
Five minutes later, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) also interrupted Walden — asking that his colleague, Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), be allowed to speak for three minutes instead of the one minute the Republicans wanted to allow. But Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) objected:
LUJAN: I request that at the very least [Rep. Castor] be recognized for 3 minutes…
SHIMKUS: I object.
LUJAN: Are you serious?
SHIMKUS: I am serious.
LUJAN: This is ridiculous.
The procedural tug-of-war continued from morning to night to early morning.
“Maybe they think we’ll get tired and run out of gas and throw in the towel,” said Tony Cardenas (D-CA), a member of the committee wearing a red-white-and-blue “healthcare for all” pin.
In Energy and Commerce, Democrats forced the committee clerk to read the 120-page bill out loud in its entirety.
In Ways and Means, Democrats proposed the same amendment Brady had proposed to the Affordable Care Act in 2009: that every member of the House voting on the health care bill issue an official statement indicating he or she had read the legislation in its entirety. They passed out the same amendment with Brady’s name crossed out and Crowley’s penciled in.
The minority party employed other stall tactics. They called four “motions to adjourn” on the floor of the House, which forced Republicans to leave the committee room and vote to stay in session. They employed obscure procedural moves to debate individual words for amendments. They forced Energy and Commerce staff to read 120 pages of legislative text out loud.
At around 9 pm, Democrats in that committee introduced the amendment to rename the American Health Care Act the “Republican Pay More for Less Care Act.” At about 10:30 pm, the committee was still debating the motion — and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) couldn’t believe it.
“It’s just inconceivable that we’ve been here 12 hours,” Blackburn said in an interview outside the committee room, “and the best the Democrats can do is to offer an amendment to change the name of the bill.”
Democrats accused Republican leadership of trying to exhaust them, so they could prevent the committee process from extending for several days — and, presumably, more stall tactics.
“Sometimes they use it as a punitive thing: ‘Okay, you want to ask all of these questions? You want to keep talking? We’ll talk till you’re finished, and however long it takes that’s how long it takes,’” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). “But we think this is too important just to be pushed through. We had no idea what was in the bill until just two days ago.”
A long day stretches overnight
At 7:39 pm, Ways and Means members had only finished debating one page of their portion of the bill. Republicans had barely spoken. They knew it would be a long night.
Rep. Sam Johnson’s staffer whispered to a colleague. “Did you see the six pack of 5-Hour Energy in the bag?”
The Republicans on the committee had long grown restless, slinking back to a room behind the dais, peeking out only when their names were called in a roll call vote.
At 9:20 pm, House Speaker Paul Ryan paid a visit. Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-NY, was talking about the dangers tanning salons (the plan repeals Obamacare’s tax on tanning salons). It seemed no one was paying attention to Crowley’s comments. Staffers turned their attention to Ryan, and the once-whispered mutterings between aides became more audible chatter.
Brady, briefly breaking from his chair post, stood with Ryan behind the dais, all smiles. The two laughed pointing out people in the room, whispering. Ten minutes later, Ryan left. Brady returned to his post and called the room back into order.
The committee room was freezing cold. As the night wore on, staffers and journalists wrapped themselves in scarves and winter coats.
By 3 am, Republican staffers were passing around candy.
At various points, 86-year-old Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX) dozed.
Members left the room for long periods and came back to find they didn’t know what they were voting on.
Around 3:30 am, rumors spread among GOP staff that Democrats were offering their last amendment. A woman ran past all the sitting young Republican staffers, patting them on the back and whispering “we’re almost there.”
The final committee vote was 23-16, straight party lines, to advance the bill. Brady’s gavel struck down at 4:15 am, ending the Ways and Means hearing after nearly 18 hours of debate. Applause broke out.
Shortly before 6 am, Cotton, the senator from Arkansas who has expressed reservations about the bill, sent a Twitter shot toward the House.
1. House health-care bill can't pass Senate w/o major changes. To my friends in House: pause, start over. Get it right, don't get it fast.— Tom Cotton (@TomCottonAR) March 9, 2017
Ways and Means members had already gone home.
The Energy and Commerce hearing was still going strong.