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Republicans Reverse Course, Open Door To Another Health Care Debate

Ryan: ‘We are all going to work together and listen together until we get this right’

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., speaks during his press conference to announce the canceled vote on the American Health Care Act of 2017 on Friday, March 24, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., speaks during his press conference to announce the canceled vote on the American Health Care Act of 2017 on Friday, March 24, 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)


House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Tuesday he isn’t abandoning his quest to overhaul the 2010 health care law, even after his first attempt to pass such legislation ended in catastrophic failure on Friday.

The Wisconsin Republican and other House leaders Tuesday called for unity within the conference. They said they would like to repeal and replace as much of the health care law as possible, although they are shifting their focus to other priorities.

“We are all going to work together and listen together until we get this right … and in the meantime, we’re going to do all our other work that we came here to do,” Ryan said.

“To my Democrat colleagues who were celebrating Friday’s action, I think their celebration is premature,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, said. “We’re closer today to repealing Obamacare than we’ve ever been before.”

Ryan declined to lay out a timeline for the work “because this is too important to not get right and to put an artificial timeline on.” He also did not outline any strategies to revive the debate in the limited time that would be available for action. 

Any action before the upcoming April recess would be a huge undertaking. Attention on Capitol Hill has now largely shifted to other issues, such as finding a way to fund the government beyond April 28 when the current continuing resolution expires.   

Just last week, Ryan acknowledged that his decision to pull the legislation from the floor meant “Obamacare is now the law of the land.” President Donald Trump said Friday that because the House didn’t pass its health care overhaul last week, he would abandon the effort and transition to other policy priorities. Late Monday, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady of Texas said he had moved on to his party’s tax code overhaul.

Ryan said Tuesday’s closed-door GOP meeting was focused on rebuilding unity among Republicans, a nod to the divisions between the broader conference and the conservative House Freedom Caucus who banded together to sink the leadership package that would have replaced much of the health care law. Several lawmakers openly admitted that the mood in the conference toward those members has been very tense.

“We are not going to retrench into our corners or put up dividing lines. Today we broke down many of those dividing lines within our conference,” Ryan said. “We had a very constructive meeting with our members. Some of those who were in the ‘no’ camp expressed a willingness to work on getting to ‘yes’ and to making this work.”

Several lawmakers signaled Tuesday morning the House could even try to revive the 2017 budget reconciliation measure that served as the vehicle for their first failed repeal efforts. Using that measure would scuttle the party’s separate plans to begin their work overhauling the tax code, which leaders had previously said would rely on a 2018 reconciliation measure. The two cannot be under consideration at the same time.

“Right now we have the ’17 and we want to use the ’17 and do what we originally intended to do,” said Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black of Tennessee. “I think it’s going to happen this year. We’re looking forward to that. We’re still working.”

House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Luke Messer of Indiana expressed similar thoughts, suggesting Congress could finish its work on health care before the reconciliation instructions expire in May.

“We’re not done yet. We’ve got to figure out how we do it,” he said. “If we’re going to get it done through reconciliation, it would be between now and May.”

Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker of North Carolina noted the GOP wants to be “urgent” in finishing their work. Asked if they can still use the reconciliation bill for fiscal 2017, he said, “Yes, 100 percent.”

“You got to grind it out a little bit, continue to try to see if there’s any adjustments to be made to get us there,” Walker said. “We’re not giving up, that’s for sure.”

Most of the GOP conference discussion Tuesday morning was about adjustments to the GOP’s approach, not the legislation, Walker said.

Tennessee GOP Rep. Phil Roe, the author of one of the first replacement plans, said next steps were all about brokering a more solid deal.

“We’re going to get interested parties in a room and see if we can’t find a deal on this,” he said. “It took the Democrats eight months to get this done. We’ve been at this 60 days. Less than 60 days.”

Several members of the House Freedom Caucus said they are still open to considering health care — but cautioned that the bill would have to change to get their support.

“The same bill won’t work, that’s been shown,” said Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash, an early opponent of the first measure. “We need to rethink the overall strategy.”

Paul Krawzak contributed to this report.

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