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A Republican Party Pulled in Multiple Directions

Same factors could bedevil other legislative priorities

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan will face the same factions in his Republican caucus that helped sink the GOP health care measure. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan will face the same factions in his Republican caucus that helped sink the GOP health care measure. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)


House Speaker Paul D. Ryan wasted no time, fresh off his defeat on the Republican health care plan, in pivoting to priorities like a tax overhaul. But the constituencies pulling his party in different directions will still be present for those complicated debates as well.

“Our members know that we did everything we could to get consensus,” the Wisconsin Republican said shortly after he pulled a measure that would have partially accomplished what has motivated his party for more than seven years: getting rid of the 2010 health care law. But in the end, the GOP’s factions pulled it in so many directions that they couldn’t even muster a majority to pass a bill that would put a win on the board.

“I don’t want to cast blame,” Ryan said, adding that there was a bloc of ‘no’ votes, with members of the House Freedom Caucus among those who helped sink the effort. Moderates from the Tuesday Group, as well as Ryan’s Appropriations Committee chairman, Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, had also signaled they were opposed to the measure.

“That is the growing pains of governing. We were a 10-year opposition party,” Ryan said, noting that in three months time, they had to try to move to a proposition party.

That sentiment regarding competing GOP cliques was seconded over and over again among Republicans, including by President Donald Trump.

“Lots of different groups. Lots of factions and there’s been a long history of liking and disliking within the Republican Party long before I got here,” Trump said from the Oval Office on Friday.

Kentucky Rep. Andy Barr noted that he comes from the district of Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser. “We need to learn from him,” Barr said.

Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman, long a target of Democratic campaign operatives, also said his party is having trouble “transitioning from an opposition party” to a governing majority.

“It is a failure, and it stings for everyone,” he said. “The question is how to recover.”

Many new GOP members were similarly glum. Florida freshman Matt Gaetz said his party needs to prove it can govern. Asked if there was anything they could do to show that, he said, “I don’t think we could pass a Mother’s Day resolution right now.”

Two other GOP freshmen seemed stung and emotionally shaken by the health care measure’s collapse. They were perturbed at their Republican colleagues who sought “perfection” and wouldn’t support the bill.

Michigan’s Paul Mitchell, the freshman liaison to the GOP leadership, pointed to other issues the caucus still has to address: taxes, infrastructure and immigration, which will require compromise.

“Tackling all those issues means that people have got to decide that their version of the best answer has to work with everybody else’s until you get a consensus of an operating majority,” Mitchell said. “[The GOP health care bill] wasn’t my perfect answer; I don’t know that it was anybody’s perfect answer, but I would support it because I thought it was progress. With progress that means there are trade-offs and you have to be willing to accept that if you’re going to be effective around here.”

Don Bacon, a freshman from Nebraska, said, “This was a signature thing that we had to get done. We’ve run on it a long time. It was my promise to do it. I did my best to fulfill my promise. … The team has to do better if we want to get this stuff done.”

He said Republicans should embrace President Ronald Reagan’s idea of accepting 80 percent. “If you have 218 people trying to get 100 percent, you’re probably not going to get there,” he said.

Rep. Bill Huizenga said the Freedom Caucus and all members need to decide why they’re in Congress.

“A number of them are here trying to push good policy. … I sometimes wonder with some of my colleagues though, if they wrote the bill themselves, if they could get to ‘yes.’ Because it’s about protecting their brand or protecting their purity to an outside group,” the Michigan Republican said. “I’m here to govern. And I think that’s the kind of inward-looking analysis we’ll all have to put forward, [or] why are we here?”

Huizenga might not be heartened to see the statement from Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul, who applauded the health care bill’s demise. 

“I applaud House conservatives for keeping their word to the American people and standing up against Obamacare Lite,” Paul said in a statement Friday. “I look forward to passing full repeal of Obamacare in the very near future.”

Asked how this reflects on Ryan’s leadership, Huizenga said, “There is nobody that would have gotten it even this close other than Paul Ryan. Absolutely nobody.”

But Rep. Mo Brooks said the health care bill broke down because not enough members were consulted in the drafting process.

“You’ve got to have everybody participating in the first instance in drafting this legislation,” the Alabama Republican said.

One of the House’s most vocal conservative firebrands also said the process needed to be more open.

Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert criticized leadership for writing the legislation behind closed doors and not allowing a real committee amendment process. 

“It was a bad bill,” the seven-term GOP congressman and Freedom Caucus member said. 

One of the architects of the health care bill, and someone who would be instrumental in any drafting of a tax bill, looked for optimism amid the ruins of the measure’s collapse.

“At least you have the silver lining of all of our members going through the experience of trying to go bold,” Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady said. “At least in that sense we are all better off having gone through this process.”

Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden, who crafted the health care bill with Brady, said the measure’s defeat does not mean Republicans cannot come together on other issues. “You find differences with people one day, and they’re your co-author on legislation the next,” he said.

The Oregon Republican noted that some of the moderates who came out against the bill in the 24 hours before Friday afternoon had been “yes” votes or leaning that way. “I think some of the last minute changes that other members of our conference insisted upon to get their votes forced some others to reconsider,” he told Roll Call.

One of the conservative groups that pressured Republicans to reject the health care measure, the Club for Growth, applauded the move to pull the bill and encouraged an even more conservative approach, foreshadowing the fault lines the GOP will need to navigate.

“President Trump was elected because millions of Americans wanted a full repeal of Obamacare, followed by free-market health care reform that would give them competition, choice, and lower prices,” club President David McIntosh said in a statement. “This bill became a Frankenstein meant to appease the insurance industry and Republicans who really want to keep parts of Obamacare.”

“Now’s the time to do it right,” he added. 

Asked whether there was a reason to believe it would be easier to bridge the factional divides on his tax overhaul quest, Brady said, “We’ll just have to keep plugging along.”

Democrats seemed to take glee in the GOP divisions unfolding in front of them.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who shepherded passage of the 2010 health care law through a fractious Democratic caucus, said it was unclear how close Republicans were to passing their bill. “We’ll never know,” the California Democrat said.

And Freshman Democrat Charlie Crist, a former Republican, said the GOP was just “whipsawed” by its factions. 

“When you started having to go to the right to appease the far right wing, then you start to lose the moderates on the other side,” the former Florida governor said. “I almost feel sorry for them. But I don’t.”

Rema Rahman, Niels Lesniewski, Tom Curry and David Hawkings contributed to this report. 

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