Republican members of Congress exited a two-hour meeting on Capitol Hill with Vice President Mike Pence Tuesday night without a deal on health care.
Members of the House Freedom Caucus, the Tuesday Group and the Republican Study Committee left the meeting with a scripted refrain: They had a “good talk” and were “making progress,” but no deal was actually struck.
“I want to make sure I’m clear: there were no agreements tonight. There was a general agreement that the progress we’re making is really progress,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said, emerging from the meeting.
With a two-week recess on the horizon, members are working to try and get some kind of deal, but House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy made it clear that at this point it would be “difficult to finish one by the end of the week” and have a vote.
As the White House continues to try and find a breakthrough on health care, Republican lawmakers feel a sense of whiplash, confusion and déjà vu.
Fewer than two weeks have passed since members were told that their best effort to repeal and replace Obamacare was being pulled and it was time to move on to some of the President’s other priorities. But a renewed push from Pence, engagement from the conservative House Freedom Caucus and others at the White House has revived the negotiations.
The momentum to do something, however, brings about the same angst that came with the negotiations the first time around.
No doubt many Republicans want to see some deal on Obamacare. The issue has united the GOP since 2010 and many members say they fear doing nothing isn’t an option. However, divisions that existed within the conference before are ever present now, and some members are already feeling like the GOP Is repeating past mistakes.
“I think we should learn something from the first round that you can’t just put some people together and then expect everyone else to go along,” said Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican from Pennsylvania. “I’m on the sidelines here waiting to find out what we’re (going).”
Rep. Mark Amodei, a moderate from Nevada, told CNN that he’s afraid the process has devolved into little more than private meetings.
“You have to totally detach yourself from any expectations on process since the process is now private meetings,” Amodei said. “It’s déjà vu in that there seems to be an absolute phobia for holding a committee meeting on the record for establishing foundation for what you did, which I don’t think is a great start.”
Meetings on the Hill
On Monday, health care negotiations seemed to have new life with Pence inviting some already sympathetic members of the moderate Tuesday group to the White House for a meeting. Pence followed that up with a visit to Capitol Hill to sit down with the conservative and so-far intransigent House Freedom Caucus.
On Tuesday, Pence continued to stay engaged, stopping by a meeting with a broad swath of members in Speaker Paul Ryan’s office and then vowing to meet with more moderates, leadership of the Republican Study Committee and the House Freedom Caucus Tuesday evening.
But, some members aren’t enticed by what the Vice President is reportedly offering.
Members say one of the ideas is to give states more opportunities to opt out of Obamacare regulations. One of the areas where states may be able to opt out would be community rating provisions, which currently protect people from being charged more on the basis of medical history or gender. Some fear that removing the protection could keep people with preexisting conditions from being able to afford insurance.
That is something that may dissuade moderates and hurt support for the House GOP bill.
Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate from Pennsylvania and leader in the Tuesday Group, said that nothing he’s heard about has helped him get any closer to supporting the bill.
“My position remains the same and I’m still opposed to the bill in its current form even with the changes that I’ve heard suggested,” Dent said, emphasizing that he still hasn’t seen anything in writing.
When asked about what she thought of giving states the opportunity to get rid of community health rating provisions, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a moderate from Florida who had been against the previous version of the Obamacare repeal bill, shuffled away without answering.
There is also still no concrete evidence that the Freedom Caucus – a group that the White House is specifically trying to win over here – would even get on board. Lawmakers have promised to consider it, but there haven’t been any commitments to support the plan at this point, reminding some of the 11th hour negotiations the last time around.
“I am confident that we need to look at the text to make sure that this works,” said House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows. “There have been no changes from “no” to “yes” because we haven’t seen the text so at this point there’s been no changes only a willingness and an openness to look at things.”
Behind the scenes there is also a lot of confusion about what is even on the table. Moderate members believe that states wouldn’t be able to access the Obamacare regulation waivers without proving that their idea would be better for consumers.
“States would have to demonstrate that they can do better for their people,” said Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-New Jersey, the leader of the moderate Tuesday group.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price last month sent a letter to governors encouraging them to file for waivers to lower premiums and increase choices in their states.
But members of the House Freedom Caucus seemed to believe the waivers would be more easily granted.
One member of the House Freedom Caucus who preferred to speak on background to speak freely about developments said that the Freedom Caucus was told that waivers states could apply for would be “automatic” and good for five years.
“This would be automatic, five years, no discretion (by) the executive branch,” the member said describing how they thought the waivers would be easily granted.
Clock is ticking
Ryan emphasized Tuesday morning that discussions were still very much in the conceptual stages, and aides have downplayed any potential chance for a vote to be held this week, but that doesn’t mean the clock isn’t ticking.
Members will leave for a two-week recess Friday where they will no doubt have to answer tough questions in their districts about health care, what the proposal is and whether or not they support it. It’s unclear if momentum to pass something can survive the recess.
Alabama GOP Rep. Bradley Byrne, a member of the Republican Study Committee, a group of fiscal conservatives, is one of the members who supports the floated changes and is willing to stay in session longer to get them passed if he has to.
“I want to get this done. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get this done,” Byrne said, saying that he supported remaining in Washington to vote on a potential deal instead of heading out on a scheduled two-week recess.
Other members have advocated doing the same, but there isn’t any evidence yet that the vote total has changed and putting it on the floor to fail isn’t an option.
“We can’t try again and fail,” said Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack.
CNN’s Phil Mattingly and Ashley Killough contributed to this report.