Rank and File Might Go Around Paul Ryan

In wake of health care misfire, members look for another way

Paul Ryan might face members bypassing him on future negotiations. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Paul Ryan might face members bypassing him on future negotiations. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 29, 2017 at 5:00am

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan is not in danger of losing his job over his Republican conference’s failure to pass health care legislation, but he is at risk of losing some of his negotiating power. 

Rank-and-file members trying to salvage the GOP’s goal to dismantle the 2010 heath care law are taking matters into their own hands, pushing the effort back on the priority list and hatching plans for where they want to see the next round of negotiations go.

House Republican leaders declared last week that their effort to repeal and replace the 2010 law was dead for the foreseeable future, but seemingly at the push of their members, leadership has reversed course.

“The way I would describe the meeting we just had with our members is we are going to work together and listen together until we get this right. It is just too important,” Ryan told reporters Tuesday after a GOP conference meeting.

“And in the meantime, we’re going to do all of our other work that we came here to do,” the speaker added.

‘Growing pains’

Ryan said Republicans are “united” around a common set of principles. While that may be the case, last week’s decision to pull the heath care bill showed divisions plaguing the conference.

“Growing pains” from the transition to an opposition party to a governing majority is how Ryan described it.

Aware of the varying viewpoints and leadership’s inability to bridge the divide, members from across the spectrum are feeling empowered to take the negotiations in their own hands. But they have different ideas on the direction they should go.

The House Freedom Caucus, the group of roughly three dozen hard-line conservatives that has become the scapegoat for the health care bill’s failure, is looking to negotiate directly with moderate members.

But some of the key GOP moderates, many of whom also opposed the leadership’s bill, might have a different idea. Some of them would like to reach out to Democrats and work on more incremental steps to overhaul the health care system.

“I don’t think the partisan-only approach will yield any significant progress,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, co-chairman of the moderate Tuesday Group.

“We need to build this from the center out, build this reform,” he added. “We’re going to need to do this in a bipartisan way in order to achieve a durable, sustainable health care reform.”

Dent suggested “partial repeal” and “incremental reform” could be the path forward.

“You talk about areas that are broken, like the individual insurance market. [Democrats] know it’s broken. We know it’s broken. Start there. They hate the Cadillac tax. We hate the tax on insurance premiums and medical devices.”

No Kumbaya moment

Such a scenario is likely to be a nonstarter for the Freedom Caucus, but given the frustration toward that group and a widely held belief that certain members will never compromise, that may be the point.

“I don’t sense there’s a Kumbaya developing where all of a sudden, members who were a ‘no’ are going to change their position. I just don’t see it,” said New York Rep. Tom Reed, a member of the Ways and Means Committee.

Reed, a member of the Tuesday Group, also co-chairs the newly formed Problem Solvers Caucus. The 40-member bipartisan group did not try to find common ground on health care — “It was obvious health care was going to be too partisan,” Reed said — but is now reevaluating that position and looking to a tax code rewrite and infrastructure package as areas where they can help shape policy.

“I do believe that the foreseeable future sets the stage for the rise of the governing members, and these members on the other side [of the aisle] are committed with me and others in the Problem Solvers Caucus to be part of the efforts to find a path to solutions for the American people,” Reed said.

Freedom Caucus outreach

Freedom Caucus members say they still want to get to a “yes” on a health care overhaul and have made overtures toward their colleagues indicating as much.

Rep. Mark Meadows, the caucus chairman, defended his group’s largely united opposition to the GOP leadership’s health care plan, saying the strength of any group is in its ability to stick together. But he emphasized their willingness and hope to worth with other parts of the conference to get a deal everyone can support.

“It’s incumbent upon Tuesday Group and Freedom Caucus people to have meaningful discussions,” Meadows said Monday evening. While there is “no organized plan” for the groups to get together, he said he’s been talking to Tuesday Group members since last Friday about arranging such talks.

Asked if that would be a new form of operating for the Freedom Caucus, Meadows said, “It’s too soon to tell.”

During the GOP conference meeting Tuesday, “there was a lot of angst” toward the Freedom Caucus, Texas Rep. Randy Weber said.

To mitigate that, Weber and several other members of the caucus stayed to answer other members’ question about the group’s position.

Paul Ryan said, ‘This is productive. This is what we needed to be doing.’ So I think you’re going to see more discussion” among members, Weber said.

Texas Rep. Joe L. Barton, a Freedom Caucus member who did ultimately get to “yes” on the health care bill, said he believes conservatives have learned some lessons from their negotiations last week.

He said he’s learned some personal lessons too, pointing out that he could have done more as vice chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee to communicate information and concerns between the panel and the Freedom Caucus.

“I think in the next go-around, the Freedom Caucus is going to be very constructive and might well be the group that delivers the votes to pass whatever’s passed,” he said.

Despite the rank and file working within their own caucuses to restart negotiations and figure out a path forward, members are not publicly criticizing leadership or suggesting shutting them out of the process.

“I have never said one thing negative about Paul Ryan,” Weber said. “In fact, I get flak in my district. Just the other day, somebody said, ‘Paul Ryan’s got to go.’ I said, ‘No, come on.’ Every time there’s a bump in the road, we can’t start throwing people under the bus.”

Erin Mershon contributed to this report.