GOP plan to overhaul health care falls apart

By Abby Livingston

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

With Friday's decision to pull the American Health Care Act from a vote, U.S. House Republicans came up short in their singular promise to voters for over seven years: repealing former President Obama's 2010 health care law.

Democrats had soundly opposed the measure U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and President Donald Trump put forward, which meant the bill had little room for error within the Republican conference. Opponents fell along both ends of the GOP spectrum: Both moderates and Tea Party members helped sink the bill.

U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, said division over what to do after repeal is what killed the bill.

"We didn't have the votes," he said. "There are strongly held opinions within our group, and this resulted in us not being able to get to a point to do the bill," Conaway said. "Some people wondered why we didn't have this ready on Inauguration Day ... it's hard."

Many House Republicans learned of the bill's fate in a meeting Friday afternoon. U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Lubbock, emerged from the meeting disappointed. As the lone freshman among Texas Republicans, this was his first experience with GOP conference upheaval — an increasingly common occurrence at the Capitol in recent years.

Arrington helped push the bill through the House Budget Committee and called its trajectory "a healthy process."

"This is my first real taste of the dysfunction within our party, and why, when we have opportunities like this, we seem to have difficulty driving the ball down the field and scoring," the former Texas Tech football player said, using a gridiron metaphor.

"I just wish we had taken a vote. I understand why," he said. "There were two sides to this and leadership has broader issues to think about. And I respect that. But I think it's important that people are accountable for their decisions and representing their constituents, and I was prepared to be accountable for mine."

At least one Texan wanted time to process the afternoon's events before weighing in.

"I'm going to put my comment in the 'draft folder' and let it sit overnight before I hit 'send,'" replied U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, when asked for comment.

While Republicans were disappointed Friday, Democrats said the bid to repeal the Affordable Care Act was doomed from the beginning.

"I'm not surprised at what just happened," said U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth. As part of the united Democratic opposition, he watched the drama as an observer. "It was a mess from the get-go," he added.

The political consequences of this setback are unclear in the immediate aftermath. There is no issue that drove the party's election fundraising, candidate recruitment and television advertising more than repealing the 2010 health care law. But the party could not come together on how to unwind the law. The newer legislation would have repealed the mandate that most Americans must have insurance, but would have translated into 24 million people without coverage, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

After failing to pass the health care law, loyal Republicans are publicly wondering about their party will govern moving forward, and consultants are bracing for how the intra-party fight over the last week could spill out into 2018 primaries — including in Texas.

Three Texas Republicans were closely involved in the passage effort: U.S. Reps. Michael Burgess of Lewisville, Kevin Brady of The Woodlands and Pete Sessions of Dallas.

Each man served in a key leadership role in a committee that had jurisdiction of the proposed overhaul. And each man spent most waking hours in recent days in hearings and selling the deal to the public.

The week, which began with a House Intelligence Committee testimony on Russian interference in the 2016 election, has been physically draining for staffers and members.

But there will be no rest for the weary, particularly Brady.

Privately and publicly, members spoke of outright aversion to addressing the issue again in the near future.

But there is hope that perhaps Brady can lead the charge on another long-held GOP ambition: tax reform, an issue President Trump said Friday that he wanted to pivot to.

"We have fought hard for this repeal – but I’m not discouraged," Brady said in a prepared statement. "Ways and Means Republicans are moving full speed ahead with President Trump on the first pro-growth tax reform in a generation.”

"We're going back to work," said U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, of Ways and Means activity. "We were working full-steam ahead on tax reform when we kind of got swung over to help with health care reform, first. So we pivoted away from that."


"It'll be easier to return to, quickly."

Marchant was one of the last Texans to overtly state his position on the health care bill. After the vote cancellation, he said he would have backed it.

He is also a longtime Texas legislator, both in Congress and in the Texas Legislature. He produced one of the few moments of laughter in the day, when he was asked how high this drama stacked up in his career: "About midways. I spent a lot of time in the Texas House."

Conaway tried to maintain some cheerfulness amid the immediate chaos: "Any day you're on this side of the dirt is a good day. "

But the House Agriculture Committee chairman did have some ominous words for the rebellious conservatives who helped kill the bill.

"I dont know how Mr. Trump is going to react to this," he said. "He's not a guy who likes to have the goalposts moved and not be able to get to a deal."

"We'll see how that all turns out. We're always at risk of overplaying our hands. And this one was a high-stakes game."

The most vehement Texas opposition to the bill had emerged from U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Tyler Republican.

The congressman compared this decision to the historically unpopular Wall Street bailout vote during the 2008 financial crisis in a Friday  morning interview with Fox News.

"I want to support him [Trump] but I can't support a bill that does more damage than good," he said.

Asked whether the 2010 overhaul would be the law of the land a year from now, Veasey, the Democrat, was succinct.

"Yes. Absolutely. I do."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune. 

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