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Analysis: Health Care Failure to Haunt Republicans Over Recess

Lawmakers call relationship with White House a ‘work in progress’

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders leaves the Capitol on Thursday after the last votes in the Senate before the August recess. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders leaves the Capitol on Thursday after the last votes in the Senate before the August recess. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Republicans departed on Thursday for a 32-day recess with key victories overshadowed by a momentous defeat on their effort to overhaul the 2010 health care law.

Lawmakers left Capitol Hill for the extended break after several months of tumult, much of which stemmed from a nascent Trump administration fraught with self-inflicted scandals and lacking in traditional political experience.

Now, with key aspects of the GOP agenda either stalled or in early stages, Republicans are left with few legislative victories to tout back at home over recess.

Republican senators cite a litany of reasons for the failures and delays, including blaming Democrats for slowed-walking many of President Donald Trump’s nominees and forcing the chamber to spend precious floor time on positions typically agreed to by unanimous consent.

But one overarching issue continues to be the chamber’s still-shaky relationship with the White House.

“It’s a work in progress,” Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said this week when asked about the dynamic. “The president’s new on the job and it’s his first political office; you’re going to have some stumbling blocks.”

Republicans have so far failed to fulfill their seven-year promise to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law, and their leaders are now standing by as committee chairmen begin working with Democrats on a bipartisan health care bill.

There have been notable victories, including the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and the repeal of several major regulatory policies put in place by the Obama administration. Several lawmakers cited the performance of the stock market and growing consumer confidence as a direct result of the GOP’s efforts at deregulation.

But members also recognize they are returning to their home states largely empty-handed.

“I’m disappointed we haven’t done more on policy and failure is not an option: We’ve got to deliver a repeal and replacement of Obamacare,” sai Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

Drain the swamp?

Trump assumed office nearly seven months ago on a populist platform, with promises to change how Washington, D.C., operates and end the influence of special interests in the federal government — even as he installed lobbyists, Capitol Hill aides and longtime political players in his administration. 

With the GOP in charge of both Congress and the White House, it was expected to be a productive honeymoon period. Republicans finally had a chance to fulfill their seven-year effort to repeal and replace the health care law and implement a sweeping GOP agenda.

That dream quickly devolved into a brutal battle in both chambers between GOP moderates and conservatives, even as Trump began to shake the institutional norms of Congress to their core.

Perhaps most striking to many, he targeted specific lawmakers for attacks on social media and Trump-aligned political groups even considered launching opposition ads and funding primary challengers against vulnerable Republican senators.

Some members, such as Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, said the early conflicts were merely growing pains of a new administration.

“I see it as a process. We’ve had disappointments, obviously, [and] we’ve had some victories,” the West Virginia Republican said. “I think it’s all about having that majority mantle and figuring out the best way to use it and being realistic about the expectations.”

When asked about Trump’s social media habits, Capito said she did “not see it as particularly productive to achieving the end result.”

Several GOP senators, speaking on background to talk about internal discussions, attributed the failure of the health care effort in part on Trump’s inability to understand and work with the Senate.

While many of the lawmakers did not dispute that hand-wringing and harsh rhetoric were standard tenets of the legislative process, they said that behavior is almost always reserved for behind closed doors.

But despite the distractions of the White House, when it came time to vote on the GOP health care bill, the seven-year campaign promise was brought to a dramatic end when Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who had returned to the Senate just days earlier after being diagnosed with brain cancer, cast a vote against a shell bill never intended to be signed into law — just to get to an unpredictable conference committee with the House.

Some Senate Republicans were quick to shoulder the blame.

“I don’t think the issue has been working together; I think the issue has been getting votes,” Idaho Sen. Michael D. Crapo said. “The two meetings we had at the White House with the whole caucus, I thought those were some of the most productive meetings we had.”

Going forward

One bright spot over the past several months was the appointment of retired Gen. John F. Kelly as Trump’s new chief of staff, a move that came only after both the White House press secretary and chief of staff departed following the appointment of a new communications director (who only lasted 10 days in the role himself).

“I think we are going to see an improvement now that Gen. Kelly is the chief of staff. He has the ability to bring order and discipline to the White House, which I think has been lacking,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Now, as Republicans seek to pivot to an overhaul of the tax code, they are hoping that process is less burdensome than the health care effort.

“It may actually be easier because I think with tax reform, you’re not promising that you are going to fix everything in the economy, you are promising to fix the tax code,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said. “I don’t think we’re at such odds that something won’t be done.”

In retrospect, however, some members would have plotted a different agenda entirely for the new Republican majority.

“I personally think we should have started with infrastructure,” Collins said.