Republicans saw their hopes of repealing Obamacare crumble into a heap of legislative rubble on Tuesday.
What did they learn from the doomed experiment? After Mitch McConnell tacitly admitted that his bill has no clear path forward, I went around the Capitol and asked seven senators — four Republicans and three Democrats — what the GOP’s health care fiasco had taught them about either health care policy or Congress more generally.
Republicans: “The problem is we have too many ideas”
Much like when it came to the objectives of the bill, it was difficult to get Republicans to agree on what exactly went wrong with their Obamacare repeal effort.
“A handful of Republicans and 48 Senate Democrats are the majority party in the US Senate,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said, a reference to the three Republican moderate senators who defected from the bill and killed it, taking a line similar to Trump.
Other Republicans sounded similarly dour about the whole experience. “I think health care has become a kind of third rail in American politics — nobody wants to touch it, and if you touch it, you pay the price. But we don't have a choice,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, one of the top-ranking Senate Republicans.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) shook his head and said the whole debacle confirmed his impression that Washington was hopelessly driven by “political considerations.”
“In general, it just reinforced that the whole process of decision-making here isn't actually driven by analysis and information,” he said. “And what's politically popular is increasing benefits.”
Some Democrats have claimed Obamacare repeal collapsed because Republicans spent years falsely promising on the campaign trail that they had a better alternative waiting in the wings.
But Thune said he’d drawn just the opposite conclusion from the whole project.
“I think Democrats will say Republicans had all this time and they didn't have any ideas [to fix Obamacare]. But the problem is we have too many ideas,” Thune said. “It’s a challenge on how to take all these different policies and knit them together in a way that gets you an actual health bill.”
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) initially declined to answer questions about the health care process, saying he has a policy of not commenting on his Republican colleagues.
“We're just trying to keep people together to find solutions to help the American people,” he said.
But was it as difficult to find the votes as he expected?
“I've been doing this for 20 years,” Enzi said. “So yes.”
Democrats: We’ve learned the power of the “creepy billionaires”
Unsurprisingly, some Senate Democrats were quick to point out that the overarching lesson from the fight was that McConnell had badly overplayed his hand.
“You learned, basically, that you don’t play the political card when it’s not a realistic card to be played. And that’s what they found out,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said.
On Tuesday night, Manchin held a meeting with several Republican senators who had served as governors to see if he could initiate bipartisan health care talks. Manchin said he didn’t think Republicans proved they’re indifferent about improving the American health care system, as some on the left are arguing.
“I haven’t drawn that conclusion. There are still Republicans who really want to do the right thing,” he said.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) had a more granular insight. Pointing to West Virginia’s Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican who came out strongly against the bill Tuesday, Markey argued that the bill’s failure showed the depth of the American opioid epidemic — one that made states most severely afflicted unwilling to cut Medicaid funding.
“There was a tremendous public education going on over the last six months about the need for more funding for the opioid epidemic — the power of the opioid epidemic to make it very difficult for any member to dramatically cut the funding to provide,” he said.
Other Senate Democrats expressed alarm that Republicans were able to come as close as they did to a bill so widely loathed by the public.
“The product sucked, the public noticed, and they would have moved on a long time ago had it not been for the conservative group pressure,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) said. “Don’t underestimate in all of this the power of the creepy billionaires.”
Some might look at Republicans’ failure to pass the bill and see the limits to the power of the conservative donors and advocacy networks pushing for repeal. But Whitehouse said the fact that so many were willing to support it was a clear testament to their continued clout. “Ultimately, it was such a horrible thing nobody wanted to go there, because it was such disastrously bad legislation,” he added.