Paul Ryan is going all out to sell Americans on his three-step plan to fix the health care system, even delivering an elaborate PowerPoint lecture before a phalanx of TV cameras last week.
Tom Cotton laid waste to the entire thing with just a few words.
“The so-called three-phase plan is nothing but politician’s talk,” Cotton told Politico in an interview this week. “It’s all talk.”
The Arkansas senator and the House speaker — both young, ambitious and potential White House material — are engaged in a surprising confrontation these days. And it could bring down Ryan’s signature legislative efforts to undo Obamacare and overhaul the tax code.
On paper, they have more in common than not — both are low-tax, strong-on-defense, small-government conservatives. But over the past several months the two have come off as polar opposites: the wonky and methodical Ryan vs. the decisive and divisive Cotton. While Ryan famously broke with Donald Trump late in the campaign, only to mend fences after the election, Cotton stuck by Trump throughout.
Both are now trying to be top Trump allies, but they are pulling the president in different directions. In the case of Obamacare, Ryan appears to be working closely with Trump to push their bill through Congress, while Cotton is imploring everyone to ease up on the gas pedal. While Ryan argues that the whole party ran on his “Better Way” agenda, which included the broad strokes of Obamacare repeal and replace, Cotton says Ryan wasn’t actually prepared for the immense task of moving major health care legislation through Congress.
“The House has moved much too quickly. I understand that the House had a ‘Better Way’ pamphlet,” Cotton said. “But we did not produce legislative text on those principles until last Monday night.”
The rivalry is riveting the Capitol, causing senators and House members to take sides between the speaker and the senator: Do they agree that Ryan is rushing the process and could cost House members their seats, as Cotton explicitly warned this week? Or is Cotton just not a team player Republicans can rely on?
“Sen. Cotton is saying House members shouldn’t vote for this. I don’t think that’s helpful,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who is close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “To say to House members ‘You’re going to [lose reelection] because this doesn’t have a chance over [in the Senate]’ is overly pessimistic and not helpful.”
For critics of Ryan’s approach, Cotton has opened up a new line of attack against Ryan’s attempts to placate Republicans concerned that the House bill will cause premiums to rise and coverage to decrease in the near term. Ryan says there will be two additional stages after Congress passes Obamacare repeal on party lines: First, the administration will make additional regulatory fixes on its own. And then, the speaker says, Democrats will come around and cooperate with the GOP on additional changes to round out the health care reform effort.
Dream on, say Cotton and his allies, who doubt Democrats will ever come off the sidelines.
“The third bucket will never materialize,” agreed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). He calls it the “sucker’s bucket.”
Cotton isn’t alone among detractors of Ryan’s approach, but his criticism, along with Sen. Rand Paul’s, has been the most biting among Republicans. And though Cotton has implored fellow GOP senators to resist the speaker’s efforts at party lunches, he’s done the most damage speaking out in public.
Cotton said he has not spoken privately with Ryan about Obamacare or tax reform despite his vehement opposition to the speaker’s proposals. The Arkansas senator last month also blasted Ryan’s proposed border adjustment tax, which would tax imports and is a keystone of his tax reform proposal. “Some ideas are so stupid only an intellectual could believe them,” Cotton said. He didn’t mention Ryan by name but didn’t exactly need to. And that came after Ryan told senators not to comment on the idea.
Cotton was on similar fire on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show Tuesday. The senator said the three-step process pushed by Ryan and other GOP leaders is “just politicians engaging in spin.” On ABC’s “This Week,” Cotton warned House members not to to “walk the plank” for Ryan and then face the political consequences when the bill can’t pass the Senate.
“He’s just expressing the reality of what we’ve known for weeks,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “There are multiple senators over there who are not going to vote for this House plan.”
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of GOP leadership who’s close to Ryan, disagreed.
“I’d prefer our members had those [disputes] in private,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t become personally attacking one person or their idea.”
Cotton has stayed away from explicitly dinging Ryan personally — he did not utter the speaker’s name once in an interview — but his assault on the process and policies championed by the speaker is emboldening Ryan’s critics. While giving a tour to constituents, conservative Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) bumped into Cotton on Wednesday to tell him: “I appreciate what you’re doing.”
“I like what I hear,” Brooks said afterward. “There aren’t a lot of people willing to take on House leadership, Senate leadership and perhaps the White House.”
If Ryan is taking issue with Cotton’s campaign, he won’t say. Ryan’s office declined to comment for this story. And Cotton didn’t seem concerned about any fallout. Asked whether Ryan is offended by his broadsides, Cotton responded: “I wouldn’t know one way or the other.”
But Ryan’s defenders are taking notice. A senior House GOP official said that “after years of talking about repeal, it seems Tom Cotton is content to continue just talking. All talk, no action.”
And a person close to House leadership asserted that Cotton is attacking plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act because of how much the law helped Arkansas, which has seen its uninsured percentage halved under Obamacare — much of that due to the state’s embrace of the Medicaid expansion.
“It’s a roundabout way for him to oppose repealing the Medicaid expansion,” the person said.
Cotton furiously denied this.
“I make no bones that some people have benefited from Obamacare. But many more people have been hurt,” he said. He argues the expansion has been too generous for able-bodied low-income people.
The run-in between the two politicians has also highlighted their differences in style. Ryan speaks about policy nuance and shades of gray, while the blunter Cotton is more black and white.
Though Ryan is certainly doing more TV hits these days than Cotton as he tries to save his legislation, the senator’s GOP critics say he’s using his arsenal of jabs to muscle into the Obamacare debate and command attention.
“He’s about Tom,” said a House member close to Ryan. “He’s from Arkansas, but he’s building a national profile and he envisions himself to be a Clinton-esque figure.”
A clash between Ryan and Cotton would have been almost inevitable if Trump had lost the election, with GOP infighting certain to emerge as the party searched for its next savior. But Trump’s win has done little to unite the party, and ascendant lawmakers like Cotton are still battling for relevancy and positioning.
Whatever his play, he’s clearly hit a nerve among Republicans who’ve embraced the Ryan plan.
“The House doesn’t really particularly welcome advice from the Senate, how they should run their affairs,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “I would just let the House take care of its business.”