It was just after sunrise on March 9, and frustrated House Republicans entered their 20th hour of debate on Capitol Hill as Democrats stalled during a committee markup of the now-dead healthcare bill.
Joe Barton — the longest-serving Texan in Congress and a member of the Freedom Caucus that President Donald Trump blames for the downfall of the effort to quickly repeal and replace Obamacare — was ready to strike a delicious deal.
“The chair would point out that it’s dawn,” said Barton, temporarily serving as the meeting’s leader and using the formal language of Congress. He turned to the committee’s Democrats.
“If the minority would be willing to move all their amendments in block and accept a no vote on a voice vote,” he continued, “and if the majority would accept the Barton-Blackburn-Hudson amendment, we could end this. And I will buy Waffle House for everybody in the committee.”
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It was a light-hearted moment in a hotly contested and highly consequential congressional debate that has only intensified in wake of the meltdown capped by last week’s decision to withdraw a Republican-sponsored health bill that President Donald Trump and other GOP leaders promised to approve as their top national priority.
Trump effectively declared war Thursday on the House Freedom Caucus, the powerful group of hard-line conservative Republicans who blocked the healthcare bill, vowing to “fight them” in the 2018 midterm elections.
In a morning tweet, Trump warned that the Freedom Caucus would “hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast.” He grouped its members, all of them Republican, with Democrats in calling for their political defeat — an extraordinary incitement of intraparty combat from a sitting president.
There are about three dozen members of the Freedom Caucus, and most of them were elected or reelected comfortably in solidly Republican districts. With his tweet, Trump seemed to be encouraging primary challenges to each of them in next year’s elections.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters late Thursday morning that he sympathized with Trump.
“I understand the president’s frustration,” said Ryan, who has been unable to push the healthcare bill through his own chamber. “I share frustration. About 90 percent of our conference is for this bill to repeal and replace Obamacare and about 10 percent are not. And that’s not enough to pass a bill.”
The Waffle House gambit was a preview of Barton’s role in the heathcare debate over the next two weeks. A 67-year-old Republican from Ennis, Barton played a prominent role as a member of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus who was willing to bargain with House Speaker Paul Ryan and President Donald Trump on the GOP’s plan to repeal and replace parts of Obamacare.
Conservative Republicans opposed the bill because it was not a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, while moderate Republicans balked at the prospect of millions losing insurance if the proposal passed.
It didn’t work out, of course. Minutes before a scheduled House floor vote last Friday, Ryan pulled the bill from the floor. He’s pledged to try again, but hasn’t given a timetable or details.
Now, Barton says, the way rank-and-file members like him get attention on such a big bill is by showing a bit of ambivalence.
“You want to be a part of the process,” Barton said in an interview. “If you’re just autocratic, you lose the ability to influence the outcome.”
Barton certainly tried to influence the outcome.
In the first few minutes of the marathon markup meeting, where committee members hunkered over binders of paper to shape the bill piece by piece, Barton introduced an amendment that would have pushed up the end of Medicaid expansion from 2020 to 2018. His proposal, intended to woo skeptical conservatives, drew a sly look from committee chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., the man who beat out Barton for the chairmanship in December.
Eventually, Barton withdrew his amendment and voted for the bill in committee.
As the bill moved closer to the House floor, the somewhat secretive Freedom Caucus drew national attention as a group of rogue hardliners who met with the president multiple times last week to discuss their concerns. Barton was among them, the first time that he’s been publicly associated with the group after joining about six months ago.
After Barton emerged from a Freedom Caucus meeting in a Mexican restaurant steps from Capitol Hill and told reporters he was a “friendly lean no” on the bill, the Texan was thrust into the national spotlight.
Barton’s office received between 200 and 300 media requests per day last week, reporters swarmed the congressman wherever he went on Capitol Hill, and he ventured to the White House twice in the span of three days to broker a deal with Trump.
Then, hours before the bill was scheduled for a full vote, Barton relented. He announced his support, donned a Texas flag tie and walked to the House floor to give a speech.
“Mr. Speaker,” Barton said in his Texas drawl, “we always want to score a touchdown, sometimes we settle for a field goal. What we don’t want to do today is take a safety.
“Vote for this bill,” he said. “Let’s send it to the other body and let’s continue to improve it.”
But Republicans took a safety, and Trump’s biggest campaign promise sputtered five yards from the goal line. Barton referred to the saga as “fantasy football” in a quote that went viral in the liberal blogosphere after the bill was pulled.
Fellow Texas Republicans such as freshman Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Lubbock, lamented the lack of a vote, and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, left the Freedom Caucus over the tiff, but Barton is willing to continue dealing until the votes are there.
“There are people that just flat didn’t understand what was in the bill and some of the newer members I don’t think totally yet understand the limitations of the reconciliation process,” Barton said. “It’s complicated. This is prime-time stuff.”
Barton said his near-vote on last Friday’s bill was one of the “top 10” hardest decisions he’s had to make in Congress, but it still trails the hardest decision he’s had to make, his vote to authorize military force in Kuwait for the Gulf War in 1991.
“At that time we thought there were going to be huge casualties and it’s pretty tough to vote knowing that lots and lots of people are going to killed,” Barton said.
Reviving the debate?
It’s unclear whether the push to repeal and replace parts of Obamacare is dead or alive. Ryan hinted to reporters on Thursday that House GOP leadership is still working to corral votes.
But Trump said he wants to move on and tackle tax reform, something that hasn’t been touched since the Reagan administration.
“I’m open to talking about healthcare again, but I want to be really talking about tax reform and get a victory for the president,” said Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, whose district extends into Tarrant County.
For his part, Barton sees the healthcare debate differently than the president. He maintains that the Freedom Caucus is ready to work with Trump and Ryan to get things done.
“I know that our Freedom Caucus folks wanted to be part of a solution,” Barton said. “We will bridge that gap. It means identifying the members of our caucus that were not prepared to vote for the bill last week, get them together collectively or individually, find out where their bottom line is and find the path forward. Politically there is always a way. There is always a way.”
But that way won’t involve waffles. Barton’s early-morning Waffle House offer was quickly shot down by House Democrats and the debate lingered on for seven more hours.
“Can’t do it,” shouted one Democrat in response to Barton’s overture of diner food.
This report includes material from The Washington Post.
Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty