House Conservatives Want Faster Obamacare Repeal, Slower Tax Reform

At New York retreat, key GOP lawmakers called for passing the 2015 health care bill again, and were wary of a border tax.

Rep. Jim Jordan
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Feb. 9, 2017, 8:24 p.m.

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.”

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