A drowning sense of frustration and disappointment washed over Republicans in the Capitol Building Friday after failing to pass any sort of repeal to Obamacare this week, but one group — the archconservatives in the House Freedom Caucus — was exceptionally optimistic.
Counterintuitively, the Senate’s failure to pass a “skinny repeal” appeared to be the best possible outcome for the Freedom Caucus. They are still holding on to a lasting hope that in the ideological war between the stubborn House conservatives and stubborn Senate moderates, the Freedom Caucus can win out.
So on Friday morning, Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), was already talking about new health bills. Freedom Caucus member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) called for yet another push on clean repeal, even though it failed to pass the Senate by a whopping seven Republican votes just this week. His colleague Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) said the Senate should have just continued negotiating instead of trying to pass the skinny repeal in the first place.
“To suggest that we have exhausted our legislative options is to ignore what has actually been happening over the past couple of days,” Meadows said. “I can tell you behind the scenes in the upper chamber there has been meaningful dialogue between people that normally don’t work together.”
It’s clear the most conservative faction of the Republican Party — the most desperate to repeal Obamacare — is posturing for yet another health care show. How they plan to thread the needle between a growing desire for bipartisanship and their vision for a conservative health plan remains to be seen.
There is no clear path to success yet
The establishment Republican line in the House is that the Senate has to work out its own problems on health care.
Instead of establishing a path forward, House Speaker Paul Ryan focused the House’s Friday conference meeting on its accomplishments — passing spending bills and moving on tax reform, Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) recounted from the meeting.
“The Senate is completely disoriented right now,” a congressional aide said, reiterating Ryan’s message. “It can end in a broader repeal. The Senate needs to figure out amongst themselves what that is.”
Meanwhile, conservatives in the House seem to be taking a more proactive approach on passing a health care bill. Meadows had made it clear Thursday that it was not in their primary interest to pass a skinny repeal bill into conference in the first place. Now they see an opening.
“Freedom Caucus members believe that we can continue to negotiate without the constraints of an official conference and see some results,” a top Freedom Caucus member told Vox.
Two health bill plans are of interest to Meadows — one being that of Sens. Lindsey Graham (SC) and Bill Cassidy (LA), which would keep most of the ACA’s taxes but send the money in block grants to the states, and the second being Sen. Ted Cruz’s Consumer Freedom Act, which failed to garner nine Republican votes this week. Both seem unlikely successes.
Graham and Cassidy, now joined by Republican Sens. Dean Heller (NV) and Rob Portman (OH), have yet to release any legislative text (although Meadows says there is some in existence) and publicly, the proposal hasn’t grown into much more than just talk. Among its merits thus far is that it remains the last concrete idea that hasn’t been voted down in the Senate.
No one is saying Obamacare repeal is dead. The question is who takes responsibility now.
Four months ago, Ryan came out to the press and declared Obamacare the “law of the land,” after having to pull the House’s health bill from the floor. The state of Obamacare repeal is more dead today than it was that day in March, but Republicans in the House have been careful to not declare it so.
Different today, however, is a clear lack of direction in the Senate.
In March, Meadows and moderate Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ) cobbled together a bill incoherent in policy, leading to millions more people being uninsured, more than $800 billion in cuts to Medicaid, and an uncertain future for the protections that vulnerable Americans enjoy under Obamacare, which passed only under the assumption the Senate would fix it.
Friday morning, hours after it became clear that the Senate had failed to find a solution, was eerily reminiscent of that moment, with Meadows again at the helm, making the case that the repeal effort could be salvaged.
But as Axios’s Mike Allen said, for all the motion conservatives are making, it’s not at all clear that there is a tangible movement toward an agreement. Already Sen. Lamar Alexander (TN), who chairs the health care-focused Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, has called for a hearing on fixing the Affordable Care Act’s individual markets — a clear sign he is angling to take back jurisdiction on health care reform. In the House, a group of 40 members have been in bipartisan talks over health care — an effort Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who cast the last “no” vote to kill the Senate’s health bill early Friday morning, supports.
“I’ve stated time and time again that one of the major failures of Obamacare was that it was rammed through Congress by Democrats on a strict-party line basis without a single Republican vote,” McCain said in a statement.
Meadows is making another stand on the conservative takeover on health care. But the path to success remains elusive.