Congressional Republicans, still sifting through the ashes of the collapse of Obamacare repeal, are confronting the prospect that their failure could lead to punishing losses in 2018.
“There is an increasing risk that because of the Senate’s failure that we could reinstate Nancy Pelosi as House speaker or we could have a different Senate majority leader — a Democrat — or that we could have a different president,” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), a candidate in a special election for an Alabama Senate seat and fierce critic of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
It’s a troubling possibility after the collapse of their seven-year anti-Obamacare crusade, whose fate was sealed in a dramatic late-night rebellion by GOP Sens. John McCain, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. Republicans campaigned since 2010 on killing the Democrat-passed health care law, and it helped net them control of Congress and — with Donald Trump’s 2016 victory — the White House. Now, they’re likely to face voters in 2018 with Obamacare mostly intact.
“I think the voters need to do a little more sorting of the people who are serving up here,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.). “When some of us said repeal Obamacare we meant it. When some of my colleagues said repeal Obamacare, they didn’t mean it.”
What’s worse: Dozens of Republicans — including many in districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 — took risky votes to back the GOP health care proposals, betting that ultimately one of them would become law. Instead, they struck out, in a defeat reminiscent of Democrats’ failure to pass a cap-and-trade bill in 2010 — leaving vulnerable members exposed with nothing to show for their efforts.
Typically, congressional leaders shield their most vulnerable members from dangerous votes. In this case, dozens supported a measure that budget analysts predicted could cause millions more Americans to go without health insurance.
Already, Democratic activists are preparing to use the rifts among Republicans to squeeze those moderate lawmakers who backed the House’s health care bill — and they’ll do it using the words of other Republicans who criticized the measure.
“A growing list of people in their own party said it was bad policy and would do a lot of harm,” said Jesse Ferguson of Protect Our Care. “Voters might not always believe what Democrats say about Republican plans like repeal, but they’ll trust what other Republicans think about it.”
Democrats also quickly targeted Nevada Sen. Dean Heller — the only GOP senator up in 2018 from a state Clinton won last year — for backing the failed Senate plan.
How congressional Republicans can turn around their fortunes is unclear. Already, the Republican National Committee is calling for “reinforcements” in Congress next year, an implicit argument that simple majorities in the House and Senate, and a supportive White House, aren’t enough to tackle an issue as politically treacherous as health care.
“@realDonaldTrump @gop working to expand the Senate Majority in 2018,” RNC chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel tweeted Friday. “We need reinforcements.”
How Trump himself handles the defeat also carries risk for lawmakers. The president has indicated he would allow the health care law to unravel, without stepping in, in order to force more lawmakers to the negotiating table. It’s a dynamic many Republicans have described as untenable, but one Trump could hasten by halting the payment of subsidies for low-income people to pay their co-pays and deductibles.
“Let Obamacare implode,” Trump said Friday at an event on Long Island.
As House Republicans left Washington for their August recess, though, a broader narrative of ineffectiveness left a bitter taste for many in the conference. Hill Republicans have not only failed to deliver on Obamacare, they left without funding Trump’s border wall with Mexico or introducing a significant tax reform plan. Internal bickering, meanwhile, has also derailed House Republicans efforts to pass a budget and massive GOP spending bill full of goodies for the base.
“I’ll get home and defend what we’ve done,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.). “I don’t know that I can defend that we haven’t done more.”
Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), who runs the House GOP’s campaign arm, said he expected voters would reward House members for getting a health care bill done, even though it never became law. In fact, he said, this could doubly benefit them because they won’t face repercussions for any hardships a law might cause. Democrats may seek to use their votes for the measure as a bludgeon, he said, but voters wouldn’t respond to “theoretical” effects of a law that never passed.
“I think they have a hard time really punishing our members for some theoretical details,” Stivers said. “I actually feel OK about where we are. I don’t feel good about where the American people are.”
Republican leaders, of course, are also trying to put a positive spin on their struggles. During a news conference Thursday, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) complained that the media were not covering the House’s legislative victories. He rattled off a litany of House-passed bills, most of them stuck in the Senate, including a repeal of Obama-era financial regulations, increased penalties for sex traffickers, job training bills and proposals to help veterans.
“The noise seems to drown out the good news around here,” he said. “People may turn on their TVs and they think that all that we do is spend our time … bickering with each other about one thing. The reality is that there is some very important work getting done here to improve people’s lives.”
Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) likewise encouraged colleagues to use the recess to talk about the more than 200 bills they’ve passed. Leaders are sending members and staff to a new website that lists their legislative achievements, though few have actually been enacted.
Others also downplayed the potential for political ramifications.
“The challenge is really on the Democratic side,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). “Will they come to some sort of understanding that they sponsored on a partisan basis something that’s failing?”
But the health care failure stoked a fierce round of blame-casting and recriminations that echoed across Washington on Friday.
House Republicans ripped their Senate counterparts for failing to forge a consensus health care bill. Conservatives slammed reluctant moderates for refusing to support deep cuts to Medicaid and Obamacare regulations that many had supported in previous years. Moderate Republicans needled President Donald Trump for his disinterest in the specifics of health policy and failure to wrangle recalcitrant Republicans.
“I think the president never really laid out core principles and didn’t sell them to the American people,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a co-chair of the moderate, 50-member Tuesday Group.
But the bulk of the House GOP’s anger was trained on the Senate.
“I just hope the American people just understand that there is a difference between the House and the Senate,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) “There’s two different bodies and just because the Senate didn’t pass it doesn’t mean that Congress as a whole, overall, is bad.”
“We want to see them get off the dime and get moving. This is a disappointment,” added Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) “It’s a failure for the American people — and this is on the Senate. There is a high level of frustration to see the work we have done week after week languishing.”