House Republicans Wary of Bipartisan Health Talks

McConnell has suggested the GOP may have to work with Democrats if Obamacare repeal fails, but the idea carries more risks for his House counterparts.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
July 12, 2017, 8 p.m.

When Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell sug­ges­ted last week that he would be open to work­ing with Demo­crats if the Re­pub­lic­an Obama­care al­tern­at­ive fails, it caught the at­ten­tion of some very in­ter­ested ob­serv­ers on the oth­er side of the Cap­it­ol.

With their own ma­jor­ity at risk, House Re­pub­lic­ans are now anxiously watch­ing to see wheth­er their Sen­ate coun­ter­parts can pull off an Obama­care-re­peal bill. Al­though there have been no form­al dis­cus­sions among House GOP lead­ers about Mc­Con­nell’s com­ments, they loom large over the next few weeks.

Either Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans will pass their health care bill or they won’t, and Mc­Con­nell will sur­vive either way. Mc­Con­nell, after all, is not up for reelec­tion, faces no chance of a lead­er­ship chal­lenge, and is in little danger of los­ing his ma­jor­ity, simply be­cause so many more Demo­crats than Re­pub­lic­ans are up this cycle. House Speak­er Paul Ry­an, on the oth­er hand, can­not rest so easy.

House lead­ers have taken some solace in the fact that they were able to pass an Obama­care re­write through their cham­ber, but the bur­den of con­gres­sion­al fail­ure to fin­ish the pro­cess will ar­gu­ably land at the feet of those in the lower body.

Con­gres­sion­al cam­paign watch­ers already be­lieve Demo­crats have a le­git­im­ate shot at win­ning back the House. Those chances could rise if Re­pub­lic­ans leave their base dis­il­lu­sioned by fail­ing to de­liv­er on the single biggest cam­paign prom­ise of the last sev­en years—wheth­er or not the blame lies ul­ti­mately with one cham­ber or the oth­er.

And al­though Ry­an seems safe atop the Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence now, it is hard to ima­gine the Right stick­ing with him for long if he over­sees the ca­pit­u­la­tion of the GOP to their nemes­is of gov­ern­ment-ad­min­istered health care. Former Speak­er John Boehner, after all, nev­er quite lived down his ad­mis­sion that “Obama­care is the law of the land”—and his will­ing­ness to cut deals with Demo­crats.

Mc­Con­nell broach­ing the idea of go­ing down that route is something no House GOP lead­er wants to hear.

Still, there seems to be a lack of con­sensus about what ex­actly Mc­Con­nell meant. Some House lead­ers heard his com­ments as an idle threat aimed at spur­ring his ranks in­to ac­tion; if Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors don’t come to an agree­ment, Mc­Con­nell seemed to be say­ing, he will have to do the un­think­able and turn to Demo­crats for help, ac­cord­ing to a lead­er­ship staffer.

Com­ing from a man known for choos­ing his words care­fully, these par­tic­u­lar ones seemed more for pos­tur­ing than for plan­ning, goes that line of thought.

“We passed a bill and we ex­pect them to pass a bill too,” said one high-rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an House mem­ber. “A gov­ern­ment bail­out of a fail­ing pro­gram that’s in a death spir­al would not be well re­ceived on our side of the build­ing.”

Oth­ers saw a more wor­ri­some pos­sib­il­ity. Some lead­er­ship staff have dis­cussed the pos­sib­il­ity of Mc­Con­nell and Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Chuck Schu­mer craft­ing an Obama­care deal and jam­ming it on the House. If Obama­care mar­kets are fail­ing and that bill is the only one out there, there would be tre­mend­ous pres­sure on the House to take it up, ac­cord­ing to an­oth­er aide.

On the oth­er hand, with a massive ideo­lo­gic­al gulf between the two parties on this is­sue, it is hard to con­cep­tu­al­ize a health bill that both Schu­mer and Mc­Con­nell could stom­ach. So that leads some to a more gra­cious in­ter­pret­a­tion of Mc­Con­nell’s com­ments.

Some Re­pub­lic­ans be­lieve he was simply stat­ing the ob­vi­ous: If in­surers con­tin­ue to pull out of Obama­care mar­kets and the Sen­ate can’t pass its bill, it will be Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers who will have to shep­herd through Con­gress bills prop­ping up in­di­vidu­al mar­ket­places or the law as a whole, or risk be­ing the ones presid­ing over the col­lapse of the health care sys­tem.

Though Pres­id­ent Trump likes to muse about al­low­ing the sys­tem to col­lapse, Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers know that is not an op­tion, as a mat­ter of both policy and polit­ics. And yet mak­ing an about-face from re­peal­ing the law and re­pla­cing it with their own policy to fix­ing the ex­ist­ing law would be a turn many of their mem­bers would simply re­fuse to take.

That would put Demo­crats in the driver’s seat, as Re­pub­lic­ans would auto­mat­ic­ally need their votes to pass any­thing. And if that’s the case, Re­pub­lic­ans can for­get about any­thing re­motely re­sem­bling a re­peal.

“We al­ways said we would be will­ing to work with them as long as they dropped the re­peal and dropped the sab­ot­age,” House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Frank Pal­lone said. “Pre­sum­ably it would be something that would help get more in­surers in the mar­ket.”

Get­ting even 100 Re­pub­lic­ans on such a bill would be a chal­lenge, however. House Free­dom Caucus Chair­man Mark Mead­ows signaled Wed­nes­day that he and his group would of­fer little help in prop­ping up the law if the Sen­ate can’t pass a re­peal.

“To sug­gest that Chuck Schu­mer is ac­tu­ally go­ing to help out on a re­peal bill de­fies not only his own rhet­or­ic but his com­mit­ment to his own con­stitu­ency,” Mead­ows said. “So are we go­ing to help fix Obama­care? The an­swer to that is no.”

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