Republicans back down from health-care push, smoothing way for government to stay open
By KELSEY SNELL AND PAUL KANE | The Washington Post | Published: April 28, 2017
WASHINGTON — Despite pressure from the White House, House GOP leaders determined Thursday night that they didn't have the votes to pass a rewrite of the Affordable Care Act and would not seek to put their proposal on the floor on Friday.
A late push to act on health care had threatened the bipartisan deal to keep the government open for one week while lawmakers crafted a longer-term spending deal. Now, members are likely to approve the short-term spending bill when it comes to the floor and keep the government open past midnight on Friday.
The failure of Republicans to unite behind the new health-care measure was a blow to White House officials, who were eager to see a vote ahead of President Donald Trump's 100-day mark. Congressional leaders were more focused this week on securing a spending agreement, according to multiple people involved in the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to talk publicly.
It was also evidence of just how divided Republicans are about how to overhaul Obamacare, despite seven years of GOP promises to repeal and replace the 2010 law. Conservatives and moderates have repeatedly clashed over the contours of such a revamp, most sharply over bringing down insurance premiums in exchange for limiting the kind of coverage that is required to be offered.
As many as 15 or so House Republicans have publicly said they will not support the latest GOP proposal, which was crafted among the White House, the hard-line House Freedom Caucus and a leading moderate lawmaker. That leaves House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and the White House an incredibly narrow path for passage. The speaker can lose only 22 Republicans on a health-care vote because Democrats have fiercely opposed any attempt to repeal the ACA.
Exiting a roughly 90-minute meeting in Ryan's office late Thursday night, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said there would be no health-care vote Friday and that the main focus of the impromptu huddle was to ensure that the leadership had the votes to pass the one-week funding bill.
"We are not voting on health-care tomorrow," McCarthy said Thursday, denying that leaders had ever wanted to vote by Friday.
"We're still educating members," McCarthy said, adding: "We've been making great progress. As soon as we have the votes, we'll vote on it."
Trump weighed in on the spending negotiations on Thursday, tweeting that Democrats wanted to shut down the government to "bail out insurance companies."
"As families prepare for summer vacations in our National Parks - Democrats threaten to close them and shut down the government. Terrible!" Trump tweeted.
But the failure to make progress on health care is a good sign for smooth passage of the government funding bill - at least the version that will keep the government's lights on through May 5. Lawmakers are still finishing negotiations on a longer-term spending deal to fund the government through September. Republicans have stated that they need Democratic support to pass that measure, which they expect to consider next week.
The Senate stands ready to approve the one-week spending bill, but only once the broader spending agreement is complete. Senators in both parties told reporters they were instructed not to leave Washington on Thursday night.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., on Thursday blocked a measure to allow the Senate to approve the stopgap budget without a formal vote. He has indicated that he will drop his objections once he is assured that a long-term budget agreement is in place, according to Senate Democratic aides.
"Instead of rushing through health care," Schumer told reporters, "they first ought to get the government funded for a full year - plain and simple."
The White House tried to jump-start talks on health care after House Republicans failed to pass a previous attempt at an ACA rewrite at the end of March.
But Democrats fiercely oppose any effort to repeal the ACA and threatened to pull their support from the short-term bill if Republicans moved forward with that effort.
"If Republicans pursue this partisan path of forcing Americans to pay more for less and destabilizing our county's health-care system," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., then "Republicans should be prepared to [keep the government open] on their own."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told a meeting of Democratic whips on Thursday that she had called Ryan and told him there were two conditions for Democratic support of the short-term funding bill, according to aides in the room. Democrats would only sign off on the emergency spending measure to allow lawmakers time to pass the longer-term spending deal, and they would not back the measure if doing so would allow Ryan time to set up a vote on a GOP rewrite of the Affordable Care Act.
The sudden turmoil was yet another sign of Congress's inability to meet deadlines for its most basic function: keeping the government's lights on. And it presages fights among Congress, the White House and both parties over spending priorities, despite the one-party rule that gave some observers hope that the gridlock would cease.
But it was Republicans who this week jettisoned money for Trump's border wall because of widespread agreement that it should not be tied to the spending deal. Trump has also agreed to pay the cost-sharing subsidies for low-income people who get their insurance under the ACA - something he threatened to withhold if he did not get money for the wall.
Ryan on Thursday also blamed Democrats for "dragging their feet" on negotiations in an apparent preparation toblame Democrats if their deal falls through.
"I would be shocked if they would want to see a government shutdown, that the Democrats would want to do that," Ryan told reporters at his weekly press briefing. "The reason this government funding bill is not ready is because Democrats have been dragging their feet."
The standoff is the first in what could be several budget battles between Congress and the White House this year. Trump has called for massive hikes to defense spending and harsh cuts to domestic agencies in his 2018 budget, a proposal that many Republicans have rejected out of hand. He is also likely to revive calls for money to begin constructing the border wall - which by some estimates would cost as much as $21 billion - in future budget negotiations.
Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., were forced to negotiate with Democratson the budgetafter it became clear that Republicans lacked enough votes to pass a long-term spending bill on their own. As a result, the GOP leaders have had the uncomfortable task of writing a measure that ignores nearly all of Trump's priorities, including money for the border wall.
Schumer also sought to refocus blame on the GOP, arguing that the only thing standing in the way of a long-term agreement was Trump himself. Congressional leaders were nearing a final deal several weeks ago, but the talks were derailed when Office of Management and budget director Mick Mulvaney announced that Trump would demand that money for the border wall be included in the funding bill.
"Unfortunately the president stood in the way for quite a long time," Schumer said. "That's why we're a little delayed."
Congressional leaders had hoped to finalize a spending deal by midweek, but the talks were stuck on a small number of unrelated policy provisions, known as riders. Democrats complained that GOP leaders were trying to use the spending bill to cut abortion access and scale back Wall Street reforms passed under President Barack Obama.
The Washington Post's Robert Costa contributed to this report.