Over 30 minutes into a meeting White House and House leadership officials wanted – needed – to be a breakthrough, it was time for everyone to put their cards on the table.
For White House budget director Mick Mulvaney and House Speaker Paul Ryan, the members of the House Freedom Caucus sitting beside and around them at the long table at the center of the conference room adjoining Ryan’s Capitol Hill office had spent enough time talking. A deal was on the table – one the White House and House leaders never planned to give in on – and this was the time to perceive how many of the conservative, and proudly intransigent, members it would bring aboard.
Mulvaney pointed to a member and asked where he stood, as indicated by multiple sources inside the room. His request was met with demurral. Confused, Ryan tried again. Then Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho spoke up: The Freedom Caucus is unified and Rep. Mark Meadows, the caucus chair, speaks for the group. Mulvaney and Ryan turned to Meadows. The group was indeed unified, Meadows told them. And they were still a no.
It was a gut punch moment for White House and leadership officials who’d knowingly risked the bill’s fate by offering a compromise to the group, but were convinced it would be enough to begin quickly picking off members, one-by-one.
Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, was furious and confronted the group. There would be no more negotiating, he said.
But Thursday night, as the men who could make or break the Obamacare repeal effort stared back at one another across the table, the realization was hitting many involved: There would be no deal.
The GOP’s long-awaited Obamacare repeal bill, the first big push of the new Republican era, was doomed.
This story relies on accounts from more than two dozen administration officials, congressional staffers and Republicans close to the health care process. It recounts the chaotic period of brinkmanship, improvisation and dissatisfaction that unfolded as the Republican Party – yet again, but for the first time with its newly minted Republican President — turned against itself.
The debacle raises a very real question as Republicans pledge to move onto other equally ambitious Trump agenda items – like tax reform, an even heavier lift than Obamacare. Can Republicans actually govern?
At the White House, top Trump aides seemed stunned at the position they’d wound up in.
“Seven years and this is what we get,” one senior administration official said. “Really incredible.”
Privately, Trump’s team seethed. In their view, the President had ventured far out on a limb. He’d pushed to change the provision to force all health insurers to cover crucial services like maternity care, mental health and prescription drugs. He’d ensured other promises in writing.
In the West Wing, there was still determination to force a vote the following day. But optimism? That was in short supply.
Less than 24 hours later, the issue Trump pledged to take care of “on Day 1” imploded upon itself.
It was an epic failure for a young administration still feeling its way around through the byzantine bureaucratic maze that is Washington and a stunning defeat for a speaker who made his name as the wonk-prince of the GOP.
Talking from the Oval Office on Friday, the President was careful to lay the blame on Democrats, whom he had neither engaged with nor expected to support the GOP’s attempt to unspool their legacy legislation. Yet, Trump likewise seemed clear-eyed about the surprises the process served up, which likely weren’t news to anyone but him.
“We learned a lot about loyalty,” Trump said. “We learned a lot about some very arcane rules in obviously both the Senate and in the House. So, it’s been certainly, for me, it’s been a very interesting experience.”