NEW YORK—House conservatives have a message for their leaders: Hurry up and repeal Obamacare, but slow down your plans to reform the tax code.
During discussion sessions at the Heritage Foundation-sponsored conservative members’ retreat, members said they are coming to the consensus that their leaders should move an Affordable Care Act repeal bill similar to the one both chambers passed in 2015 and figure out a wholesale replacement later.
“Whether it’s our base or the American people in general, this is something we’ve been spinning our wheels on, so let’s at least get out the gates and get moving,” Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker said in an interview. “At some point, the upper chamber needs to know we’re serious about moving forward and getting this thing done. This proverbial hamster wheel—it’s time to get off of it.”
As a blizzard froze the city outside, conservatives inside Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall also put ice on House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady’s plans for tax reform, giving a particularly frosty reception to the border-adjustability tax, the linchpin pay-for that would allow leaders to move revenue-neutral tax reform.
“I’ve got real concerns. Any time you’re adding a new revenue stream, a new tax, and not getting rid of another one, I think that’s dangerous long-term,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, former chairman of the RSC and the House Freedom Caucus.
The meeting was held just blocks away from Trump Tower, and President Trump’s newly-installed liaison to Hill conservatives, Paul Teller, was in attendance, as was House Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry. But the positions taken fly in the face of Republican leadership and the Trump administration, both of which have said they want to repeal and replace Obamacare in near-simultaneous votes early this year and move on to rewriting the tax code through the budget-reconciliation process in the second half of 2017. But with more than a quarter of House Republicans attending this retreat, leadership may need to recalibrate.
“You need 218 votes, so if you’ve got 65 members saying this is the direction they want to go, hopefully that would speak volumes,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said.
Brady, the only committee chair in attendance, said in an interview that leaders will still pursue both policies. Although he said he was on the phone with the White House when the Obamacare-repeal consensus was reached, he hopes the House can go further than the 2015 bill.
“I think there’s genuine consensus that that past bill has got to be our foundation for this,” Brady said. “I’m still convinced that many of us would like to see reforms that begin to give states more control and restore the free market in legislation, if it is possible to be part of the budget process.”
On tax reform, he also struck an optimistic note. He said he recognizes the border-adjustment tax is a “bold reform,” but said he thinks it will be included in a tax-reform package when all is said and done.
“I’m confident at the end of the day our tax code will not favor foreign products over U.S. products, nor will it continue to chase jobs overseas,” Brady said.
Concerning Obamacare, Speaker Paul Ryan and other leaders have said they want to move “repeal-plus,” which would repeal Obamacare while also setting up elements of a replacement. But conservatives want the House to move the 2015 measure as a starting point and let the Senate add to it if it likes.
That measure, passed under the budget-reconciliation process in 2015 but vetoed by President Obama, would repeal large portions of the Affordable Care Act, most notably the individual and employer mandates and more than a dozen health care taxes, while also choking off federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Unlike the 2015 measure, however, this plan would keep the Medicaid expansion in place until Congress can come up with a replacement.
Meadows said the strategy has the practical effect of forcing a vote out of senators who may have cold feet about repealing Obamacare now that the stakes are real. If they wouldn’t vote for the same bill they passed last Congress, he said, “You have to defend voting for things just because you didn’t think they’d pass. That’s a very hard argument to make.”
The push comes out of fear that Republican leaders and senators may want only to repair the health care law, or allow states to repeal the exchanges at will, as outlined in a plan proposed by Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy and Susan Collins. Revamping the 2015 measure would also force the Planned Parenthood issue back into the spotlight, while some moderate Republicans don’t want to take up the contentious issue for fear of jeopardizing Obamacare repeal altogether.
“We’re starting to get concerned that we’re not going to do that much, so let’s at a minimum do that,” Jordan said. “We should be able to put on President Trump’s desk something at least as good as what we put on President Obama’s desk, not something watered down from that. That’s the starting point. If it can get better, all the better.”
Conservatives are also discussing coming together around an Obamacare-replacement bill that would resemble one introduced by Rep. Phil Roe, although Rep. Mark Sanford is pushing the Freedom Caucus to adopt a plan he said he will soon introduce, which is companion legislation to Sen. Rand Paul’s Obamacare-replacement package.
On tax reform, meanwhile, Ryan and Brady’s plan to pay for a decrease in corporate tax rates with a border tax on imports rather than exports appears to be a harder sell by the day. At a session on taxes at Carnegie Hall, Brady made his argument for the tax, but conservatives are skeptical.
They are hardly the first to question the idea, as moderate senators and import-heavy corporate interests have cast doubt on it as well. Without a pay-for, passing tax reform through the budget-reconciliation process would be impossible, because Senate rules require it to be revenue-neutral or revenue-positive.
That would mean the chambers would have to pass tax reform through the regular committee process, risking a Democratic filibuster—a far cry from the expedited process Ryan and other leaders are advocating. That, however, would be fine with Meadows and other conservatives.
“If lowering taxes is good for the American public, let’s lower taxes,” Meadows said. “You leave the border-adjustment tax as another issue to perhaps address on another day.”