House Speaker Paul Ryan delayed a vote on the Obamacare replacement bill Thursday, as he attempts avoid a stinging political rebuke from conservative and moderate Republicans who do not support the landmark legislation.
Even President Donald Trump, who touts himself as a deal-maker, was unable to convince skeptical lawmakers to support the much-maligned legislation after multiple meetings with House Republicans at the White House.
The delay means Republican leaders failed to pass the bill on the seven year anniversary of the Affordable Care Act’s passage, what was supposed to be a symbolic policy triumph for a GOP-led Congress and White House.
Instead, members were told to expect votes on Friday.
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If Ryan eventually gets the bill approved on the House floor, it then faces an uphill battle in the Senate.
“We are trying to get 30 to 40 no votes to yes,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., to reporters after a closed-door meeting with members of the Freedom Caucus, a conservative group of lawmakers who have concerns about the bill. “I’d like to see 237 votes but we are not at that particular point.”
Texas Republicans for the most part were prepared to back the bill. In a delegation rife with committee chairmen and allies of leadership, most fell in line behind Ryan. Some were even excited to vote for repeal. Democrats, including Reps. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, were lined up against the proposal.
A Democratic member told The Texas Tribune that their caucus was instructed to stay in town at least through Friday. Sources from both parties said that members were anticipating the possibility of continued negotiations and votes through the weekend.
With no Democratic support, Republicans had a narrow margin of error in pushing the bill through the chamber. There were three potential Texas holdouts: U.S. Reps. Joe Barton of Ennis, Louie Gohmert of Tyler and Randy Weber of Friendswood. All three are members of a group called the Freedom Caucus who have bedeviled GOP vote counters for years.
Freedom Caucus members, including Barton and Gohmert, attended an intense negotiation with President Trump earlier on Thursday, an effort to salvage Thursday's vote. Hours later, House Republicans pulled the bill.
Democracy is messy.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis
Barton indicated to reporters that he might vote for the bill if the right revisions are made. He described the negotiating session as “back-patting and butt-kicking … Democracy is messy.” He added that postponing the vote was “the right thing to do.”
In a circus-like atmosphere throughout Capitol Hill, members shuttled to and from various rooms for meetings with Ryan and leadership throughout the day along with trekking down Pennsylvania Avenue to meet with Trump. Adding to it were continued protests in Washington and elsewhere around the country.
Few seemed to know exactly what was going on.
All Democrats are against the bill, so Ryan can only afford about 20 defections from his own party, depending on how many members are present to vote. The current defections include conservative and moderate Republicans. Conservatives do not support provisions in the bill that mandate insurance companies cover certain health services because the coverage would increase premium costs. Moderates are opposed to the bill after it was revealed that some low-income individuals will lose health insurance under the plan.
“I am still a no at this time,” Meadows said. “I’m desperately trying to get to yes. The president knows that. I told him that personally. All the Freedom Caucus, they’re really trying to get to yes.”
Meadows also said he plans to talk with moderate lawmakers like New Jersey Republican Tom MacArthur to move forward with a plan that can capture the necessary votes.
But Republican lawmakers who support the bill warn that further delay will result in more lost votes.
“Every moment we go past midnight tonight, I think the chances of passing this bill get less, not greater,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., after meeting with Ryan. “The window for making decisions is rapidly closing. We need a vote or go home.”
Byrne warned that too many amendments from conservatives and moderates could make the legislation even less popular than it already is.
“Two groups that don’t represent even a majority of the Republican conference have been given every opportunity to have multiple conversations with the president and leadership,” Byrne said. “At some point you’ve got to say, ‘That’s it.’ And we’re at that point.”
The Tuesday Group, a caucus of moderate Republicans, was set to meet with Trump on Thursday evening as Freedom Caucus members huddle with Ryan. The entire GOP caucus was set to meet afterward.
Trump’s skills as a deal-maker took a hit when he failed to convince the chairman of the Freedom Caucus to support the healthcare bill. Meadows declared that “no deal” was reached after meeting with Trump in the Cabinet room of the White House just hours before the House postponed the vote.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted Thursday afternoon the bill was not in trouble and that they were never seeking a so-called deal.
Spicer did not provide details of the meetings other than to say that both the president and the Freedom Caucus are committed to implementing a system that will drive down costs and increase access to healthcare.
Asked during the press briefing, whether Trump was willing to do away with elements of the pre-existing protection as conservatives have pressed, Spicer said the president has made clear those protections must remain.
The president has done a phenomenal job.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer
Asked about Trump’s ability to strike a deal, Spicer defended the work of his boss, but said he can’t force members to vote.
“The president has done a phenomenal job, there’s no question,” Spicer said. “And I think when you look at the effort that he’s put in, the number of meetings that he’s had, and the changes that have been made to the bill, there’s no question how hard the president and his team, the vice president have worked to get this done.”
“And it’s in response — at the end of the day we can’t force somebody to vote, but I think … I like the direction that this thing is going. I think that we continue to see support go with us,” he said.
Trump meanwhile took to Twitter to call on supporters to call their representatives to vote for the bill. Spicer called out Republicans who repeatedly voted to overturn Obamacare so they could brag to constituents.
“This is a live ball now,” Spicer said. “This is for real, and we’re going to do what we pledged to the American people and keep our word.”
Republicans have been working for seven years to undo former President Barack Obama’s signature policy achievement, and argued that Democrats used their majorities in both houses at the time to slam Obamacare through. Democrats are now accusing Republicans of trying to do the same, holding hearings on the bill before the Congressional Budget Office could determine how the AHCA would impact current coverage. An eventual CBO assessment predicted the Republican plan would make 24 million people uninsured by 2026.
Over the past several days Trump has lobbied members of Congress to support the bill, to help him fulfill his key campaign promise to repeal and replace Obamacare. Trump pledged his new bill would cost people much less for insurance plans and it would ensure “insurance for everybody.” In its current form, the AHCA does not guarantee either of those conditions will be met.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a leading voice against the legislation, said House conservatives are doing “an outstanding job” in lobbying against the bill.
There are still a number of procedural hurdles necessary for the bill to pass. It still needs to pass the Rules Committee, where potential changes would be added.
A Congressional Budget Office score to a batch of amendments offered by leadership saw a reduction in decreases to the federal deficit but health coverage and premium rates are relatively unchanged. The CBO reported Thursday that the faltering legislation would still leave 14 million people without health insurance next year and 24 million without coverage in 2026 — the same as the original bill.
After the announcement that the vote would be delayed, the White House and House leadership said they were confident a vote will take place Friday.
“Getting this right is more important than getting it done on a particular anniversary date,” said Rep. Daniel Donovan of New York, a moderate Republican who does not support the bill. “When it’s done right we'll have our own anniversary date.”
Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report, which includes material from The Texas Tribune.