As the latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act unraveled on Wednesday, two Republican lawmakers stood a couple hundred feet apart in the Capitol’s marble hallways and blamed each other.
The effort to repeal Obamacare failed because of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, said the moderate Republican Rep. Chris Collins of New York.
“We moved to what I thought was a very good compromise, only to have them move the goalposts again,” said Collins. “This is the Freedom Caucus saying they want to get to ‘yes’ — but their actions don’t show that.”
The most conservative lawmakers had repeatedly made impossible demands for the Republican bill, Collins added.
“I think they’re looking in the mirror and know exactly who’s standing in the way,” he said.
Meanwhile, a few paces away, Republican Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus made the same accusation of the moderate Tuesday Group, of which Collins is a member.
“The problem is that the Tuesday Group has decided they don’t want to repeal Obamacare,” Brooks added, accusing the moderates of not going far enough in repealing former President Obama’s signature law. “Now all of a sudden people have not only moved the goalposts, they’ve taken them out of the stadium, chopped them up and burned it.”
This is not your usual intra-party dispute.
For years the GOP has been a raucous conference, divided between moderates and the hard-right, with internal tensions leading to government shutdowns and debt ceiling scares. But the divisions within the Republican Party are now perhaps worse than ever, and the fault lines in the current fight over Obamacare have made the party’s challenge painfully apparent.
The Obamacare fight has led to Republicans taking potshots against their own members to reporters in the halls, spilling their grievances over failed efforts to govern into the press.
Closed-door meetings have yielded simmering resentment between members. Leaders in the party are increasingly frustrated. The President has attacked members of his party on Twitter and bullied them behind closed doors. And it has led to deep uncertainty within the Republican conference over whether the party can effectively legislate.
“When you’re in the minority, it’s easy to be unified, because you don’t have much leverage,” said Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Texas. “It’s tougher to be unified today.”
Last month the dysfunction within the Republican conference came to a head when members of the conservative Freedom Caucus and the moderate Tuesday Group abandoned the Obamacare repeal bill and negotiations collapsed.
The disagreements came out of different views about how to repeal Obamacare. Conservatives have called for nothing less than a full repeal of the bill, though there are differences within the Freedom Caucus over what a full repeal would actually entail. Many asked for an earlier rollback of the Medicaid expansion, which provided insurance to people above the poverty line, and then later called for a more far-reaching repeal of Obamacare regulations.
Moderates, meanwhile, objected to removing protections for the insured and defunding Planned Parenthood, as well as cutting subsidies to the elderly and lower-income earners.
But the divisions are broader, and speak to bigger problems for the Republican Party in the coming years. There are profound disagreements about tax reform, infrastructure spending and entitlement reform that will threaten to jam up major pieces of legislation. Republicans disagree about when and how much to work with Democrats, and how much to compromise on their campaign promises.
Much of the antipathy within the conference began with the rise of the Tea Party in 2009 and 2010. Indeed, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in 2015 accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of telling “a flat-out lie” over the U.S. Export-Import Bank, and Arizona Sen. John McCain of Arizona in turn called Tea Party lawmakers including Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul “wacko birds.”
But now that the Republican Party controls both chambers of Congress and the White House, the divisions are causing more strain within the party and threatening to derail the party’s agenda.
“We’ve been dysfunctional for a while,” said Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma. “We were able to stay relatively united against President Obama. But we have not been able to be united as a governing party, and that’s got to be worked through.”
One of the coming fights will be over tax reform. Many Republicans in the House, including Rep. Kevin Brady, chair of the key Ways and Means Committee, and Speaker Paul Ryan, want to impose a border adjustment tax of 20% on imports that and cut corporate tax rates. But Republicans like Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Sen. David Perdue of Georgia strongly oppose it.
And members of the Freedom Caucus, most of whom were elected in staunchly Republican districts, are under pressure from their constituents to get the most conservative outcomes, whether on defunding Planned Parenthood, finding funding for the border wall or reforming entitlements.
“It’s a charged environment all over the country. It’s not unique to Congress,” said Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur, a moderate from New Jersey. “We sort of represent what’s happening across the country there are a lot of fault lines in the country overall.”
Meanwhile, the fights over health care continue.
In recent days, concerted outreach to both moderates and conservatives by Vice President Mike Pence and top White House officials have failed to reconcile the differences in the conference. A cross-sectional meeting of the party’s leaders on Tuesday, which included moderates and conservatives, brought no compromise. On Thursday morning the House Rules Committee met to try to hash out some agreement.
The Freedom Caucus has called for giving states the option to opt out of the core tenets of Obamacare, including protections for those with preexisting conditions and essential health benefits that every insurance plan has to offer.
Their proposals have pushed away many moderate Republicans. Rep. Patrick McHenry, the chief deputy whip in the House and one of the chamber’s top-ranking Republicans, called the demands from the Freedom Caucus “a bridge too far.”
“This is not the Tuesday Group’s fault, I’ll tell you that, and I’ll leave it at that,” said Republicans Study Committee Chair Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, a conservative who has played a role in mediating between moderates and the Freedom Caucus. “You’ve got to take some ownership here.”
At the same time, outside conservative groups who helped support the rise of the Tea Party in Congress blamed moderate Republicans for breaking campaign promises over Obamacare.
“I think the Tuesday Group clearly wants to keep Obamacare in place,” Heritage Action CEO Mike Needham said in a call with reporters on Wednesday morning. “Each one of these members of Congress is standing in the way of compromise.”
And as for Collins, the moderate from New York, and his vociferous criticism to reporters of the Freedom Caucus?
“This bill got better because of what the Freedom Caucus has brought to the table,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, a Freedom Caucus member, standing just outside the House of Representatives chamber, waiting for an elevator.
“What I would challenge the gentleman from New York is please look in the mirror,” he said.
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