After Health Bill Failure, Can the GOP Govern?

The party's inability to repeal Obamacare, despite control of Congress and the White House, raises questions about what else it can accomplish.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters Tuesday.
Chet Susslin
July 18, 2017, 8 p.m.

Republicans appear ready to break their promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, fueling self-doubt about their mission six months into the Trump administration.

For the GOP, it’s a steep fall from the heady days after a shocking election. With control of the White House, Senate, and House for the first time in a decade, the party had set its sights high for 2017 and 2018, seeking to overturn President Obama’s signature domestic achievement, pass sweeping tax reform, and restore the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

None of those top three goals are on schedule. The Senate health care bill doesn’t have the votes. Tax reform, already extraordinarily difficult, must wait until a tricky budget impasse gets sorted out. And there’s no road map yet for how to fix highways and bridges. It’s left some Republicans wondering whether their party can govern.

“I think we need to work on that,” said Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. “Look at our accomplishments so far. We need to do more.”

“I think we have to be [a governing party],” added Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. “Time will tell.”

The massive defeat on health care came from a small revolt.

By Monday night, four out of 52 Republican senators had announced they opposed their leaders’ health care bill, a stunning rebuke of a secretive process designed to deter public criticism of the legislation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly shifted to a new strategy to vote on an even more conservative bill that repealed much of the ACA without providing a replacement.

By Tuesday afternoon, three Republican senators—Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia—snuffed out that idea, leaving leaders gasping. McConnell later vowed that the chamber would still hold a procedural vote next week on moving forward.

In the hours before the collapse, Sen. John Thune admonished his colleagues to “face the music” and support the team, arguing that the party needs to deliver on its promises.

“People out there who have an expectation that we’re going to get this done deserve to at least see us carry through with that commitment,” said Thune on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show. “And I think that it looks to our supporters that we can’t shoot straight. It makes us and Republicans generally look dysfunctional. And that’s not an image that we want out there.”

But that’s exactly the image that conservative media projected. The Drudge Report’s top story on Tuesday linked to an article in The Week headlined “Why the GOP Congress will be the most unproductive in 164 years.” Breitbart News led with “GOP Senators: Only More Government Can Fix Health Insurance.” National Review magazine questioned, “Why Can’t Republicans Get Anything Done?

In the aftershock, Sen. Pat Roberts, a 36-year veteran of Congress, said he had “never” seen something like this, where a leader of a party couldn’t get a procedural vote from his members to get on a bill. Noting the critiques from both ideological ends of the Republican Party—essentially, their alternatives were either too much or not enough Obamacare—Roberts said, “It was just the perfect storm.”

Republicans pushed for their leaders to give them more power in the process. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the health committee, said he would work on finally scheduling hearings. Murkowski said Republicans should work with Democrats.

“A proposal that just allows for the repeal with no replacement, I think just causes greater uncertainty, greater chaos, and the families that I’m talking to back home in Alaska don’t need any more of that,” she said. “To just say, ‘repeal and trust us that we’re going to fix it in a couple of years’—that’s not going to provide comfort to the anxiety that a lot of Alaskan families are feeling right now.”

As the party in power, Republicans on Capitol Hill believe that they need to address the problems of the ACA. But President Trump on Tuesday reiterated his belief that fixing Obamacare is not his party’s responsibility.

“Let Obamacare fail,” he said at a luncheon with military service members. “It will be a lot easier. … I’m not going to own it. I can tell you, the Republicans are not going to own it.”

But Sen. Pat Toomey suggested they would not get off so easily. “History will look back on this moment and harshly judge this Congress for not beginning the process of replacing Obamacare and for failing to put Medicaid on a sustainable trajectory when we had the opportunity to do so," he said.

At his weekly press conference, McConnell was asked how Republicans could justify a failure on repealing the ACA to their voters. The Republican leader responded, "Well, we have a new Supreme Court justice,” before adding they had also rolled back 14 Obama-era regulations, and still had time to move on to tax reform and infrastructure.

“There’s much work left to be done for the American people and we’re ready to tackle it,” said McConnell.

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