Saturday, March 25, 2017
How Did Ryan Fumble The Vote?
WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan admitted in a surprisingly candid Friday press conference that his caucus was experiencing “growing pains” that caused him to fall short of delivering long-promised votes to repeal and replace Obamacare.
“Yeah, we’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future,” Ryan told reporters. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take us to replace this law.”
It was a stunning admission from the leader of a party that has been promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act for seven years and now controls the White House and both houses of Congress.
“Moving from an opposition party to a governing party comes with growing pains, and well, we’re feeling those growing pains today,” Ryan said. “Doing big things is hard.”
It certainly appears that way. The lead-up to Friday’s health care vote was filled with confusion and uncertainty. House Republicans, mobbed by reporters, seemed to have no idea whether their leadership had enough votes, even as lawmakers took to the floor to praise the legislation in a debate that was supposed to end by 3:30 p.m. for the vote. “Why can’t we be positive?” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy asked one reporter. “I’m an optimistic man.”
“I don’t have any more information than you,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said Friday morning. And Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said it would be a “cliffhanger.”
Party leaders usually aim for certainty when bringing major pieces of legislation up for a vote. But Ryan was facing pressure outside his control: the impatience of a self-styled dealmaker president who initially demanded that a vote take place on Friday, whether or not Republicans could pass it.
The president’s ultimatum, delivered to House Republicans by Trump budget chief Mick Mulvaney on Thursday night, put Ryan in a tight spot. The message was delivered in a closed-door meeting that several members described as “emotional.” Trump said negotiations were closed after a last-minute change that would have allowed states to phase out essential health benefits like maternity care, while simultaneously creating a fund that would restore some of those benefits by temporarily retaining Obamacare’s Medicare tax. This split-the-baby approach was meant to appeal to House GOP conservatives and moderates, who both opposed the health care replacement bill. But it backfired, with both sides remaining unhappy.
On Friday morning, a few hours before the vote was scheduled, Ryan stood in a back corner of the House chamber with his chief of staff, Jonathan Burks, and two other aides. He conferred briefly with Burks and then stood, his elbow on the railing and his chin in his hand, for a minute or two. He looked pensive and dejected as he stared at the wall showing results for an earlier set of votes.
At 3 p.m., 30 minutes before the vote was scheduled, Ryan talked to the president and advised him the votes weren’t there, and the two decided to pull the bill.
Trump and the White House had pushed for a vote in order to put the bill’s opponents on the record. But Ryan’s concern was that such a vote would end up hurting only moderate Republicans — many representing competitive districts — who would cast the hard vote out of loyalty to him, only to suffer electoral consequences in the midterm elections next year. Meanwhile, the hard-line Republicans opposed to the bill would not be punished by deep-red conservative districts.
Ryan quickly delivered the news to his caucus members, who were gathered in the Capitol basement, playing down the significance of the measure’s failure.
“The speaker just said, ‘We’re done for the day. Let’s all go home. Let’s not get angry, let’s not do anything rash. This is just part of what happens. And everybody have a good weekend,’” recalled Morgan Griffith, R-Va.
In his press conference, Ryan mentioned that Republicans would move on to other priorities, like regulatory reform and securing the border. He admitted that tax reform, which he promised to deliver after repealing Obamacare, would be more difficult now that his health care initiative had failed. In his own Oval Office comments following the vote, Trump signaled that his eye was on overhauling the tax system.