Trump and Republicans pulled back from voting on Obamacare repeal Friday
There was not enough House GOP support to pass the bill
More than 30 minutes into a meeting White House and House leadership officials wanted – needed – to be a breakthrough, it was time for everyone to put their cards on the table.
For White House budget director Mick Mulvaney and House Speaker Paul Ryan, the members of the House Freedom Caucus sitting beside and around them at the long table at the center of the conference room adjoining Ryan’s Capitol Hill office had spent enough time talking. A deal was on the table – one the White House and House leaders never planned to give in on – and this was the time to see how many of the conservative, and proudly intransigent, members it would bring aboard.
Mulvaney pointed to a member and asked where he stood, according to multiple sources inside the room. His request was met with demurral. Confused, Ryan tried again. Then Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho spoke up: The Freedom Caucus is unified and Rep. Mark Meadows, the caucus chair, speaks for the group. Mulvaney and Ryan turned to Meadows. The group was indeed unified, Meadows told them. And they were still a no.
It was a gut punch moment for White House and leadership officials who’d knowingly risked the bill’s fate by offering a compromise to the group, but were convinced it would be enough to start quickly picking off members, one-by-one.
Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, was furious and confronted the group. There would be no more negotiating, he said.
But Thursday night, as the men who could make or break the Obamacare repeal effort stared back at one another across the table, the realization was hitting many involved: There would be no deal.
The GOP’s long-awaited Obamacare repeal bill, the first big push of the new Republican era, was doomed.
This story relies on accounts from more than two dozen administration officials, congressional staffers and Republicans close to the health care process. It recounts the chaotic period of brinkmanship, improvisation and disappointment that unfolded as the Republican Party – yet again, but for the first time with its newly minted Republican President – turned against itself.
The debacle raises a very real question as Republicans pledge to move onto other equally ambitious Trump agenda items – like tax reform, an even heavier lift than Obamacare. Can Republicans actually govern?
At the White House, top Trump aides seemed stunned at the position they’d wound up in.
“Seven years and this is what we get,” one senior administration official said. “Really incredible.”
Privately, Trump’s team seethed. In their view, the President had ventured far out on a limb. He’d pushed to change the provision to force all health insurers to cover crucial services like maternity care, mental health and prescription drugs. He’d guaranteed other promises in writing.
In the West Wing, there was still determination to force a vote the following day. But optimism? That was in short supply.
Less than 24 hours later, the issue Trump pledged to take care of “on Day 1” imploded upon itself.
It was an epic failure for a young administration still feeling its way around through the byzantine bureaucratic maze that is Washington and a stunning defeat for a speaker who made his name as the wonk-prince of the GOP.
Speaking from the Oval Office on Friday, the President was careful to lay the blame on Democrats, whom he had neither engaged with nor expected to support the GOP’s attempt to unspool their legacy legislation. But Trump also seemed clear-eyed about the surprises the process served up, which likely weren’t news to anyone but him.
“We learned a lot about loyalty,” Trump said. “We learned a lot about some very arcane rules in obviously both the Senate and in the House. So, it’s been certainly, for me, it’s been a very interesting experience.”
Know when to walk away
Friday dawned with Republicans digesting Trump’s ultimatum, unveiled by Mulvaney on Capitol Hill Thursday night. The President – who campaigned daily on repealing Obamacare – was threatening to leave them saddled with the law if they did not vote for his replacement plan.
As the sun was just rising over the White House on the crisp morning, a weary Mulvaney walked slowly up the north driveway toward the West Wing. He had just finished a tough round of television interviews, where he put on a brave face about the fate of the bill.
But away from the cameras, he paused for a moment and said bluntly what he telegraphed privately the night before: “If it fails today, we’re moving on.”
It was the decision of a boardroom titan who believes you have to know when to walk away to seal a deal. It turns out those bluffs don’t always pay off outside the board room.
The Freedom Caucus was standing firm – insisting the Trump-Ryan plan was effectively Obamacare lite – a new entitlement, simply swapping the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies for tax credits. The White House and House leadership had inched their way in offering to repeal a key insurance mandate, but they wanted more – a repeal of Obamacare’s entire insurance regulation infrastructure.
Arrayed against them were the moderates of the Tuesday Group, who feared that the American Health Care Act represented a wrecking ball to their hopes of retaining their seats in less conservative territory during the midterm elections in 2018.
Despite a raucous and, according to several people in the room, deeply emotional closed-door conference meeting the night before, by mid-morning on Friday, Ryan knew there was no way forward, several sources involved in the process recounted.
The speaker approached Meadows on the floor at 10:30 a.m., nodding to the proclamation the night before the Meadows was the sole spokesman for the Freedom Caucus. He asked him point blank – were he and his group still a “no?”
Meadows’ answer would doom the bill.
Journey to the White House
Ryan decided it was time to head to the White House to deliver the bad news to Trump.
His dash down Pennsylvania Avenue was immediately interpreted by lawmakers and reporters as a sign that the game was up.
But Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, was putting on a brave face, chastening reporters for being so downbeat about the bill’s prospects.
“You guys are so negative!” Spicer said. He appeared to be trying to boost his own spirits as much as anyone’s during a particularly melancholy defense of the GOP health care bill’s prospects in the White House Briefing Room.
At that very moment, a few hundred feet away, Ryan was telling Trump the painful truth.
Over lunch of grilled chicken, Brussels sprouts and twice-baked potatoes – Ryan got to the point: The ultimatum hadn’t worked.
Moderates – burned by the concessions to conservatives – continued to fall away, and they were actually getting further from the 215 votes they would’ve needed for passage.
The President did not have the votes and Ryan wanted Trump to agree to pull the bill from the floor.
Until that point, Trump had bought into the theory from his aides that it was time to smoke out disloyal members with a vote. The President wanted to know who would truly be on his side in the future.
But Ryan countered, forcefully, that it was bad strategy. The Freedom Caucus had been the cause of much heartburn for the House speaker, but forging ahead with a vote would expose the moderates – the very members the GOP needs to keep its majority.
Freedom Caucus members wouldn’t be punished politically for the vote. Most come from very safe districts. In fact, most – if not all – had run ahead of Trump in November in those districts.
The members from swing districts would take the biggest hit.