When Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo voted for the Republican health care bill this spring, he did so believing the Senate would make it better.
“I received strong assurances that major improvements would be made in the Senate,” the two-term congressman wrote in a May Miami Herald op-ed explaining his vote.
But after weeks of unfruitful negotiations, the Senate failed to pass their own version of a health care repeal Thursday night. That leaves those House Republicans who justified their politically risky “yes” votes last May by saying the Senate would improve the legislation without much cover.
House members who voted for their own version of repeal were upset about the Senate vote Friday morning, but few expressed concern about their own political fates. Mostly, they denied that they’re thinking about politics at all.
But as they head home for a month-long recess, House Republicans in targeted districts are likely to continue to face tough questions about a deeply unpopular piece of legislation.
Walking the plank?
And now that the Senate’s failed to pass the so-called skinny repeal, House Republicans who voted for their own version are effectively left holding the bag.
“You guys just walked the plank and the president told you that you voted for a mean bill,” a Republican consultant said Friday afternoon. The Democratic attack ads, the Republican said, practically write themselves.
Many Republicans voted for the House bill because repeal is a message they’d campaigned on for years, successfully. They’d argue they delivered to their base — a political imperative in a midterm year. But without action in the Senate, that delivery doesn’t go very far.
“All of our people are on the ballot next time, a lot of theirs aren’t,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. He’s worried members of his conference could take the blame in 2018.
Because of the Senate’s inaction so far, House Republicans go home not having fully delivered to their base, but also having angered moderates and some independents who are upset by repeal efforts.
Curbelo is a top Democratic target in 2018.
But despite Hillary Clinton’s 16-point win in his district, Curbelo still won re-election by 12 points against a former Democratic congressman who was tarnished by scandals related to a former aide.
Republicans are optimistic that’s a performance Curbelo can repeat in 2018, especially given his more moderate stances on environmental issues, for example.
For his part, he isn’t worried about his health care vote, even though he said he was "never enamored" with the House bill.
“I have no regrets,” he said Friday afternoon after the House’s last votes before August recess.
“I decided to be honest with the campaigns that I’ve run for three, four years that the current system is not sustainable,” he said.
“Obviously doing it Republican only was very ambitious and that’s failed, at least for now. So now we need to engage our Democratic colleagues,” Curbelo said, adding that he’d already met with the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus Friday morning.
The coming attacks
But Democrats are already planning to go after all Republicans indiscriminately, regardless of what bipartisan efforts emerge on health care.
And voting against the House GOP bill won’t spare any vulnerable Republicans from attacks. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already targeted House Republicans who voted for it in committee but didn’t vote for final passage.
Cole isn’t despairing yet. “The people who hold the tough seats are really good. That’s how they got there, and that’s how they’ve stayed there,” he said.
The eight-term Republican recommends GOP lawmakers talk about the accomplishments the House has achieved when they go home next month.
“If I were talking to a community banker in my district, I’d talk about the repeal of Dodd Frank every day, and twice on Sunday,” he joked.
And to a certain extent that includes health care, too, Cole said. “The best response is to say, ‘Look, we did everything we could in the House. We told you we’d get it done, and we did.’”
And if there’s a silver lining to the GOP health care debacle, multiple Republicans said it may be that the party will be compelled to work even harder on tax reform when they return in September — because they know they need a major legislative win before the election year.
Meanwhile, Republicans are hoping to push Democrats back on defensive on health care.
“Democrats own Obamacare,” said Rob Simms, the former executive director of the NRCC. “Members and candidates are about to have their bluffs called on reforming or fixing Obamacare,“ he added.
And already this year, the NRCC has been trying to tie Democrats to single payer, an issue Republicans hope will divide the Democratic party ahead of 2018.