Friday's sinking of the Obamacare repeal vote was a sign of the House Freedom Caucus flexing muscle
Now people inside and outside the caucus wonder, what's next?
House Speaker Paul Ryan had just told his conference Friday that the Republican Party had failed to get enough votes for a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, a seven-year campaign promise that had united Republicans and catapulted their Party into control of the House, the Senate and the presidency.
The implicit message from leadership was it was time to move on to a different subject – and that the Republican House conference had some growing up to do.
The room was somber, according to members.
But not everyone was unhappy with the outcome.
Racing out of the conference meeting to catch his plane, Rep. Mo Brooks, a member of the defiant House Freedom Caucus – the group that had argued at every turn that the House bill didn’t go far enough – was pleased with the power his caucus had exhibited. If people had doubted the Freedom Caucus would remain an influential force under President Donald Trump, there was no questioning now their ability to exercise immense influence over not only their leadership’s agenda but their new president’s as well.
“I would hope that the Freedom Caucus would get credit,” Brooks said. “What happened today was a very good thing for our country.”
Now,the question is, after their major show of strength, what will become of the House’s most conservative and now despised contingent?
Before the bill was pulled, one GOP leadership aide warned: “I’ve never seen it as bad as this is now. People are very angry and now you have a White House and president who are also very angry.”
“If they actually took this down, they might feel like they flexed their muscles, but I feel like they’ve ostracized themselves like they haven’t ever done before,” the aide said. “I think this could be a breaking point for the membership of the Freedom Caucus.”
The group’s a familiar foe for leadership – a cast of characters that has been front and center in showdowns over government spending bills and the ousting of House Speaker John Boehner. If the House Freedom Caucus had been a thorn in the side of leaders under President Barack Obama, they proved Friday that they wouldn’t yield just because they finally have a Republican president.
From the beginning, members of the House Freedom Caucus had been among the most outspoken voices against House leadership’s bill. The group met repeatedly throughout the process, emerging from countless late-night meetings in the Rayburn office building to declare they had the votes to kill House leaders’ bill. Three members of their group – Reps. Dave Brat, Mark Sanford and Gary Palmer – had tried to stop it from advancing out of the House Budget Committee, where it narrowly passed 19 to 17.
On Friday, Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican from Michigan, argued the House Freedom Caucus had done nothing more than exercise its authority to improve the legislation – despite dire warnings from the White House and leaders that voting against the bill could hurt the President’s agenda and threaten the party’s political future.
“It’s in dictatorships where someone just comes up with a product and that’s it. That’s the final product. In our system, our constitutional republic, we try something. It might fail, then we try again,” he said.
The chairman of the group, Rep. Mark Meadows, issued a statement declaring he still wanted to work with Trump on health care.
“I promised the people of North Carolina’s 11th District that I would fight for a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act and a replacement with a market-driven approach that brings down costs and provides more choices for the American people,” Meadows said in the statement. “I remain wholeheartedly committed to following through on this promise. I know President Trump is committed to repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a system that works for American families, and I look forward to working with him do just that.”
In the end, Republican leaders didn’t have the votes they needed to repeal and replace Obamacare – a position that members of both their conservative and moderate flanks had put them in. But the Freedom Caucus will no doubt take a large share of the blame in future retellings of the saga for having negotiated a side deal with the White House in the eleventh hour and then failing to get enough of their members to “yes.”
House leadership had tried to declare early on that the House’s American Health Care Act wasn’t open for major, sweeping changes, a position that was later undermined by Trump’s signal to the caucus that he was open to large fixes.
In the end, however, despite the White House trying to give members what they thought they wanted – a repeal of 10 Essential Health Benefits insurers are required to cover under the Affordable Care Act – the House Freedom Caucus still wanted more regulations repealed, which they argued would drive down costs. Members advocated to repeal Article 1, rules that dictated insurers had to allow adult children to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26 and cover people with pre-existing conditions.
“It’s fairly amazing that even after meeting with President Trump, they are holding out for removing health care from people with pre-existing conditions, something they know could never pass and goes against everything president Trump promised during the campaign,” one GOP aide familiar with the whip operation told CNN Thursday as it was growing increasingly clear that the Freedom Caucus wasn’t budging enough to make up the difference.
There was some movement toward passage: Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, had given his blessing to get behind the bill Thursday, but it still wasn’t enough.
Throughout the process, Meadows declared that progress was being made and he “desperately” wanted to get to “yes.” In the end, however, there weren’t enough Freedom Caucus members on board.
When asked how the White House viewed the Freedom Caucus after the group had seemed to be move the goalpost, a member familiar with the whip operation, said: “As I told a freshman member when he complained to me that Meadows stabbed him in the back last year, ‘I’m sorry you had to experience what has already happened to the rest of us.’”
CNN’s MJ Lee, Phil Mattingly, Deirdre Walsh and Ashley Killough contributed to this report.