The GOP’s internal squabbling over what to do with the nation’s more than $3 trillion health care system is revealing the deep disagreements within the GOP that threaten to undermine the party at a time when discipline is critical.
On Monday evening Vice President Mike Pence paid a visit to the Tea Party’s loudest voice in Congress, the House Freedom Caucus. Pence is doing these rounds with the disparate factions of Republicans in Congress in order to shore up support for Trump’s agenda, but the Tea Party doesn’t seem to want to march in line, even though they now control the levers of power in Washington.
After the meeting with Pence, the 30-some-odd member group voted unanimously to force Speaker Paul Ryan’s hand by calling for a vote to immediately repeal the Affordable Care Act in its entirety, even as Trump has called for keeping the popular portions of it in tact while also attempting to expand coverage nationwide.
Not even a full two months into the new Congress, Republicans have an Obamacare-sized problem on their hands, because party leaders need the Freedom Caucus’ votes to pass their agenda but the group has drawn its own red line in the sand demanding a full repeal of Obamacare as their price for being team players in the future.
Many of the members of the group report they can’t support any bill short of the full Obamacare repeal Republicans sent directly to President Barack Obama’s veto pen in 2015. Rank and file conservatives now fear GOP leaders are slow walking the repeal effort in order to merely tweak it around the edges, instead of carrying through on their party’s promise to overhaul the law they formerly labeled a socialist takeover of the health care system.
“The commitment for Republicans in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, has been ‘repeal and replace;’ not, ‘repeal and renege,’” Rep. Mark Davidson (R-OH) told reporters at the Capitol. “And a repeal means that it’s a repeal. There are no more Affordable Care Act plans. There’s no ‘If you like your Obamacare you can keep your Obamacare’ in the Republican commitment.”
On Tuesday, Speaker Ryan even paraded his top lieutenants charged with rewriting the law in front of a standing room only gathering of reporters and cameras, but neither Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady nor Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Greg Walden could offer any details on what their committees, let alone their party, has in store for the American people.
Sure, there were the usual vague promises of tax savings, offering consumers portable insurance policies and the conservative granddaddy of them all: Health Savings Accounts. But, as Democrats are quick to point out, seven years into the nation’s debate over Obamacare, the GOP has yet to coalesce around a single bill to improve the system.
It’s gotten to the point where even Republicans are wary of Republican’s soaring promises on health care.
“Something Republicans need to be concerned about is if we’re just going to replace Obamacare with Obamacare-lite, then it begs the question, ‘Were we just against Obamacare because it was proposed by Democrats?’” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) told reporters. “If that’s our position then we’re very hypocritical because then we’re just taking a political position, not a policy based position.”
“Frankly our base is going to leave the party because they’re not going to be happy with something that does exactly what Obamacare did before with a different name,” he ominously warned.
But the conservative wing of the party—which looks to have the votes to derail a replacement plan if they want—is serving a different base than many of their colleagues, like the Republicans representing states that expanded Medicaid.
While the Freedom Caucus wants to do away with the Medicaid expansion altogether, lawmakers from Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, among others, see things differently. For them an outright repeal would bring angry voters banging on their doors from day one.
“We made promises to the American people and we have to keep them,” Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ) told The Daily Beast. MacArthur has supported some repeal efforts in the past while opposing others, like the GOP budget resolution at the start of this Congress. He says his party needs to recognize that the times have changed.
“Where we are today with a Republican Congress and a Republican White House we’re not passing messaging bills here. We are shooting live rounds,” MacArthur continued. “We’re doing things that have an immediate, specific impact on Americans lives, and I’m not interested in looking at votes in the past. I’m interested in making sure that when we repeal, we know what the replacement looks like.”
Unlike the empty, political threats GOP leaders often toss around, the Freedom Caucus doesn’t mess around and has actually carried through on their threats. Back in 2013, after teaming up with—or being co-opted by, depending on who you ask—Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) the group shut the federal government down over a far fetched plan to force Obama to repeal his namesake, Obamacare.
With the Tea Party in Congress looking for another hostage to take, Republican leaders have been put on notice, which sets the party in power in Washington up for a fierce battle on the issue in the coming weeks or months. And they report that outright repeal is their bottom line.
“It’s the floor. It’s the floor,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Penn.) told reporters. “We all approved of that in 2015 there should be no reason why we can’t approve of that again, and we can start the discussion there. But that’s the minimum.”