The House GOP’s Success—and Peril

Republican leaders finally proved they could pass key legislation, but it could cost them their majority.

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. flanked by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas and House Majority Whip Steve Scalies of La., smiles as President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 4, 2017, after the House pushed through a health care bill.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
May 4, 2017, 4:57 p.m.

Through con­tro­versy and con­tra­dic­tion, Speak­er Paul Ry­an proved Thursday that the bois­ter­ous House can pro­duce a Re­pub­lic­an gov­ern­ing ma­jor­ity. The ques­tion now is wheth­er—like the Demo­crats of the late 2000s—that ma­jor­ity’s products will en­danger the ma­jor­ity it­self.

After weeks of tweak­ing their health care bill with pet amend­ments and twist­ing arms to get last-minute votes, House Re­pub­lic­ans cel­eb­rated their le­gis­lat­ive vic­tory with a rally at the White House. Not­ably ab­sent among the smiles and back-pat­ting were sev­er­al cent­rist Re­pub­lic­ans who, be­grudgingly, voted for the bill.

Therein lies the con­tra­dic­tion of the Amer­ic­an Health Care Act: On the one hand, it is a much-needed le­gis­lat­ive vic­tory for Pres­id­ent Trump, Ry­an, and the House lead­er­ship team. Lead­ers played the Rocky theme song to pump their mem­bers up dur­ing their morn­ing meet­ing and in the af­ter­noon, Ry­an got a stand­ing ova­tion from his mem­bers on the House floor just be­fore the vote.

“When you’ve got a group as un­ruly and in­de­pend­ent as our con­fer­ence is, it’s tough to lead. But I think he’s done a great job,” Rep. Richard Hud­son said of Ry­an. “I think we’re get­ting there.”

On the oth­er hand, it is a bill that even some mem­bers who voted for it privately con­cede is deeply flawed and was passed through a flawed pro­cess. Fur­ther­more, it may nev­er pass the Sen­ate, and even if it does, it will al­most cer­tainly look very little like the bill voted on in the House. As if to il­lus­trate its un­pop­ular­ity in some seg­ments of the Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence, throughout the week, some mem­bers ducked re­port­ers so they wouldn’t have to make their po­s­i­tion on the bill pub­lic un­til the crit­ic­al last minute.

“Some mem­bers of House lead­er­ship are con­cerned the re­peal/re­place pro­cess, lack of reg­u­lar or­der, and an ex­tremely tight vote could im­per­il the ma­jor­ity built by the NR­CC over the past few elec­tions,” said a GOP lob­by­ist.

Demo­crats viewed the vote as a polit­ic­al gift. As the House voted, they jeered their en­dangered Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues with bel­lows of, “Na na na na, hey hey hey, good­bye.” House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, dur­ing the last minutes of de­bate on the bill, picked up on the polit­ic­al dy­nam­ic and spoke dir­ectly to those mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans.

“You vote for this bill, you have walked the plank from mod­er­ate to rad­ic­al,” she told them. “And you’re walk­ing the plank for what? A bill that will not be ac­cep­ted by the United States Sen­ate. … But you have every pro­vi­sion of this bill tat­tooed on your fore­head. You will glow in the dark on this one.”

Still, Re­pub­lic­ans re­cog­nized that the stain of do­ing noth­ing would have been just as deep, with the an­ger com­ing from their own base, not the oth­er side of the aisle. Mem­bers noted that to not vote on the bill, or for the bill to fail, would have been an ab­dic­a­tion of a key prom­ise of nearly every Re­pub­lic­an cam­paign for the past sev­en years: to roll back Obama­care.

“People made prom­ises they wanted to be able to keep,” House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy told re­port­ers after the bill passed. “It’s one thing to act in a ma­jor­ity when we don’t have the pres­id­ency, it’s an­oth­er way to act col­lect­ively … to be able to find com­prom­ise.”

Still, con­tra­dict­or­ily, to keep their prom­ise, they had to break oth­ers. Re­pub­lic­ans had to em­brace policy ele­ments, like the goal of near-uni­ver­sal cov­er­age, that are not tra­di­tion­al planks of Re­pub­lic­an or­tho­doxy. To pass the bill, they em­ployed pro­ced­ur­al and ne­go­ti­at­ing tac­tics they re­peatedly de­cried when Demo­crats held the gavels.

To achieve their goal and prove the GOP ma­jor­ity is not in­ef­fec­tu­al, al­most every seg­ment of the Re­pub­lic­an con­fer­ence made com­prom­ises. Con­ser­vat­ives in the House Free­dom Caucus took the un­usu­al step of sup­port­ing what they agreed was a half-meas­ure that does not fully re­peal Obama­care.

The group’s chair­man, Rep. Mark Mead­ows, said part of that de­cision stemmed from un­der­stand­ing that Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers in the North­east have a much dif­fer­ent task than those like him rep­res­ent­ing con­stitu­ents in the South.

“The epi­phany is that this is a crit­ic­al piece of le­gis­la­tion that we’ve been mak­ing cam­paign prom­ises on for sev­en years and if I can’t de­liv­er here, I need to go home,” Mead­ows said. “It’s real easy to be uni­fied when your vote doesn’t mat­ter and you’re in the minor­ity. It’s much more dif­fi­cult to be uni­fied when you’re in the ma­jor­ity.”

Mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans who sup­por­ted the bill did so know­ing that if a bill like this be­came law, they could not en­sure that con­stitu­ents with preex­ist­ing con­di­tions or those covered by Medi­caid ex­pan­sion would ul­ti­mately be able to keep or af­ford in­sur­ance. And on top of that, they could ul­ti­mately lose their seats for the vote.

Rep. Tom Cole said that for those mem­bers, the cal­cu­la­tion was sim­il­ar to what some Demo­crats went through when vot­ing for Obama­care sev­en years ago.

“We run the same risk. If we do something, then we’ll be judged on the qual­ity of what we do,” Cole said. “Nobody’s go­ing to say, ‘Oh you got it done, that’s won­der­ful!’ If it doesn’t make their life bet­ter, let alone if it makes their life worse, then we will pay a price. We will lose the ma­jor­ity.”

Alex Rogers contributed to this article.
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