Little Agreement Among GOP Members on Health Care Bill Next Steps

Regular conference meeting canceled ahead of Freedom Caucus meeting with Trump

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers said repeal of the so-called essential health benefits provision in the Republican health care plan, which Freedom Caucus members have pushed for, might not be allowed under Senate rules. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers said repeal of the so-called essential health benefits provision in the Republican health care plan, which Freedom Caucus members have pushed for, might not be allowed under Senate rules. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 23, 2017 at 9:32am

House Republicans had hoped to vote on a bill to partially repeal and replace the landmark 2010 health care law on Thursday, seven years to the day after President Barack Obama signed it. Instead, they find themselves without the votes to do so and little agreement on their next move.

The House GOP conference’s weekly Thursday planning meeting, at which lawmakers might have decided on next steps, was canceled Thursday morning. Members of the conservative Freedom Caucus, which opposed the bill, are scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump at 11:30 a.m., so progress on the bill may not be made until midday Thursday or later.

Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert said he was surprised to see the conference meeting postponed.

“All I can figure is, instead of coming together as a party, our leadership must be trying to zero in and target specific individuals to change their vote instead of bringing us together,” he said.

One member of the deputy whip team said leadership is still planning to hold a vote on the bill Thursday night. He said he expected further conference meetings today, and that he didn’t yet know whether members of the Freedom Caucus will come on board. 

Freedom Caucus board member Dave Brat said Thursday that conservatives remain hopeful they can strike a deal with the White House on repealing health insurance regulations from the current law, but the Virginia Republican declined to detail provisions under discussion. He emphasized that it’s important to see any offer in writing.

Asked if conservatives are worried that any deal they strike may push moderates away from “yes,” Brat demurred.

“Our goal isn’t trying to put anyone in a tough spot,” he said. 

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and his leadership team ended Wednesday talking with roughly 20 members of the moderate Tuesday Group for two and a half hours in the speaker’s office, but it appeared no significant progress was made toward a deal that would salvage the bill.

Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry met with House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden and several other members of the Tuesday Group early Thursday, including Reps. Tom MacArthur and Fred Upton

“They want to understand the impact of the policy, how it affects the [Congressional Budget Office] score, and what are the other elements to what’s happening right now,” McHenry said of the moderates.

The North Carolina Republican said he’s still optimistic about a vote Thursday night on the bill. 

“We’re anticipating a good meeting between members of the Freedom Caucus and the White House team at 11:30,” he added. 

Despite the uncertain path forward, it appears repeal of the so-called essential health benefits provision is still part of the conversation. The Freedom Caucus has pushed for that, but leadership has said it is not allowed in the reconciliation measure because of Senate budget rules.

“We’re just working through it,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers told Roll Call after Wednesday’s meeting when asked whether leadership’s intention was still to keep that provision out of the bill. She did emphasize that she believed the provision would not be allowed under the Senate’s budget reconciliation rules.

Asked if she’s heard what specifically the Freedom Caucus is seeking, McMorris Rodgers said, “They are negotiating with President Trump and they’re meeting in the morning.” 

Some Freedom Caucus members signaled they would want to see other insurance regulations repealed besides the essential health benefits. 

Michigan Rep. Justin Amash confirmed as much in a tweet early Thursday, saying repealing essential health benefits without making other substantial changes “would make the bill worse, not better. It would hurt the sickest people on exchanges.”

The 2010 health care overhaul requires plans to cover 10 types of benefits, including maternity, habilitative and preventive services.

Freedom Caucus spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said in a tweet late Wednesday that the group was continuing to negotiate but that no decisions had been reached. “The Freedom Caucus continues to have serious concerns with current AHCA text,” she said, referring to the GOP bill by its acronym. 

Walden and Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady were also present for the leadership meeting with the moderates, which included a mix of members who have announced support for the health care bill and others who have expressed concerns.

Few lawmakers had much to say, leaving the meeting.

The only member to announce a change in position after the meeting was the Tuesday Group Co-Chairman Charlie Dent but he did so in a statement, not in a conversation with reporters. The Pennsylvania Republican, who had been citing “serious concerns” about the bill for weeks, officially came out as a “no” vote.

“After careful deliberation, I cannot support the bill and will oppose it,” Dent said. “I believe this bill, in its current form, will lead to the loss of coverage and make insurance unaffordable for too many Americans, particularly for low-to-moderate income and older individuals. We have an important opportunity to enact reforms that will result in real health care transformation — bringing down costs and improving health outcomes. This legislation misses the mark.”

Dent added that he hopes the House can “step back from this vote and arbitrary deadline” to focus on getting the legislation right.

Joe Williams and Erin Mershon contributed to this report.