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CAPITOL HILL — The future of President Donald Trump’s agenda hung in the balance Thursday as Republicans endured a tortured day of negotiations up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, fighting up to the last minute to negotiate passage of a long-promised health care bill.
Just 61 days after Trump promised momentous political change as he was sworn in on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, House Republicans couldn’t find agreement with each other on their signature campaign promise of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Trump put his skills as a deal-maker on the line, but failed to win over the conservative House Freedom Caucus and even alienated some moderates afraid for their political futures. His and Speaker Paul Ryan’s failure to secure enough votes backed the once-unified Republican Party into a politically tricky corner that could be hard to escape, even if the bill does pass.
“This is one of those moments where you have got to say who you are really deep inside of you — are you for President Trump and repealing and replacing Obamacare, or are you against President Trump and are you against repealing and replacing Obamacare? It’s that simple,” Representative Bradley Byrne, a Republican from Alabama, said as he emerged from a late-afternoon emergency strategy meeting in Ryan’s office after the House Freedom Caucus rejected the latest deal.
“This is a tense moment for everybody, because we’re driving down to the finish line — but I think there’s a determination to get this done and get it done in the right way,” Byrne told VOA.
This week’s turmoil could decimate the political capital of the Republican leadership, ruining plans for tax reform and major infrastructure spending, and throwing a shadow over a looming budget battle that could shut down the government.
“An effective speaker, an effective leader of House Republicans, would have taken one look at this bill, understood it had no chance of passage and would have stopped the bill writing in its tracks and never let it see the light of day,” John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told VOA. “Paul Ryan failed to do that, and he failed to do that at the expense of his own party, his own caucus and his own president.”
Ryan scheduled the vote for the seventh anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Care Act, just weeks after introducing the legislation and before he could build consensus within his own party.
“I think you see here a Congress who is going to come away from this vote very worried that their president — the president of their party — is incapable of helping them task big-ticket legislation,” Hudak said.
The House Freedom Caucus — a politically conservative group of House members — kept the bill from the votes required for passage, arguing that Trump and Ryan’s proposal violates limited government principles by keeping too many key provisions of former President Barack Obama’s health care plan.
“We’re certainly trying to get to yes, but, indeed, we’ve made very reasonable requests and we’re hopeful that those reasonable requests will be listened to and ultimately agreed to,” Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows told reporters after a last-minute White House meeting to negotiate with Trump.
Trump has repeatedly warned caucus members they could lose big in 2018 midterm elections if they fail to act in support of his bill.
“The president is correct — if Republicans fail to pass this bill, it will be a problem for them. The problem is, passing the bill creates a problem for them as well,” Hudak said.
But the president’s concessions to the caucus alienated more moderate Republicans who fear the changes could doom the bill’s chances in the Senate, ruining their own opportunities for re-election. Suddenly, Trump and Ryan found themselves facing a battle on two fronts within their own party.
House Democrats smelled blood in the water — and a future political opportunity — as they stood to the side, watching the events unfold.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters Trump made a “rookie” mistake by staking his reputation as a negotiator on a piece of legislation that was rushed to a vote without party consensus.
“If this bill were to fail today — rookie day — I stand ready to negotiate with them on how we can go forward in incorporating their ideas, saving face for them in some areas and doing right for the American people,” Pelosi told reporters.
“The Democrats — for once — are playing this in a masterfully political way. They recognize that the only thing worse than Republicans failing to pass this bill, is for Republicans to pass this bill,” said Hudak. “For Democrats, it’s a win-win.”
Pelosi told reporters the situation ultimately will end up working in the Democrats’ favor, no matter what the outcome.
“This is a bad day for them,” she said, summing up a week of uncertainty.