Democrats could ex­ploit GOP stag­na­tion in 2018

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MIKE DEBONIS AND AM­BER PHILLIPS

The Repub­li­can Party’s sev­enyear quest to undo the Af­ford­able Care Act cul­mi­nated Fri­day in a hu­mil­i­at­ing fail­ure to pass an un­pop­u­lar bill, spark­ing ques­tions about how steep the costs will be for its con­gres­sional ma­jori­ties.

While law­mak­ers have not com­pletely aban­doned the ef­fort, they are now con­fronting the con­se­quences of their flop. Not only has it left the GOP in a pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion head­ing into next year’s midterm elec­tions, but it also has placed enor­mous pres­sure on the party to pass an am­bi­tious and com­plex over­haul of fed­eral taxes.

Strate­gists ar­gued for months that Repub­li­cans risked more by not act­ing and alien­at­ing their con­ser­va­tive base than by pass­ing an un­pop­u­lar re­peal bill that could turn off swing vot­ers. They now live in the worst of both worlds — with noth­ing to show for seven years of cam­paign prom­ises, even though dozens of vul­ner­a­ble law­mak­ers cast votes that could leave them ex­posed to at­tacks from Democrats.

“This is an epic fail­ure by con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans,” said Tim Phillips, pres­i­dent of the con­ser­va­tive Koch net­work group

Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­ity. “But it’s time to pivot to tax re­form. There’s no time to pout.”

In the mo­ments af­ter the bare­bones re­peal bill failed early Fri­day morn­ing, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.) said it was “time to move on.” But there seemed to be lit­tle stom­ach af­ter­ward among Repub­li­cans on Capi­tol Hill for ac­knowl­edg­ing out­right fail­ure on their top cam­paign prom­ise.

Law­mak­ers did agree, how­ever, that when they re­turn to Wash­ing­ton af­ter La­bor Day, they must suc­ceed in their re­write of the tax code af­ter seven months that have seen too many of their top agenda items un­touched.

“We’ve asked the vot­ers for a lot,” said Rep. James B. Re­nacci (R-Ohio), who is leav­ing Congress af­ter his cur­rent term to run for gov­er­nor. “They’ve given us the House. They’ve given us the Se­nate. They’ve given us the pres­i­dency. It’s time to give them some­thing back and get some­thing done.”

Off the Hill, the col­lapse of the re­peal ef­fort has left con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists fum­ing about how the GOP could have flinched and pon­der­ing pay­back for the party es­tab­lish­ment — par­tic­u­larly sev­eral mod­er­ate sen­a­tors who voted for ACA re­peal leg­is­la­tion when it had no chance of be­com­ing law only to balk when it did.

In cam­paign af­ter cam­paign since the ACA was en­acted in 2010, GOP can­di­dates used pledges to “re­peal and re­place Oba­macare” to gain ma­jori­ties in the House and Se­nate, and Pres­i­dent Trump promised to un­ravel the law as one of his first acts in of­fice.

In­stead, Repub­li­cans have con­tin­u­ally failed to co­a­lesce around an al­ter­na­tive — vividly demon­strated by the dra­matic fail­ure of the “skinny re­peal” on the Se­nate floor Fri­day morn­ing. They ap­pear trapped in the fal­lacy of sunk costs: Hav­ing in­vested so much po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal in the ACA’s re­peal, they can­not pos­si­bly aban­don it.

Nu­mer­ous House law­mak­ers leav­ing a closed-door Repub­li­can con­fer­ence meet­ing hours af­ter Se­nate bill col­lapsed said that ef­forts to undo the in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar health-care law would have to con­tinue.

“I am dis­ap­pointed and frus­trated, but we should not give up,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (RWis.) de­clared.

Rep. Mark Mead­ows (R-N.C.), the leader of an in­flu­en­tial bloc of House con­ser­va­tives, in­sisted a deal was still within reach and said he had ap­proached key sen­a­tors. And al­though Trump said he would “let Oba­macare im­plode,” he also urged sen­a­tors on Twit­ter to jet­ti­son their fil­i­buster rules to pass “re­ally good things.”

But key fig­ures warned Repub­li­cans to move on be­fore the health-care morass sinks the rest of the party’s agenda — most im­por­tant, the tax over­haul.

“Quar­an­tine it,” said Josh Holmes, a GOP strate­gist and for­mer chief of staff to McCon­nell who coined the “re­peal and re­place” mantra in 2010. “You can let it de­stroy your en­tire agenda and your en­tire party as a re­sult of in­ac­tion by con­tin­u­ing to dwell on some­thing that, frankly, they’ve proven un­able to do.”

But con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists have been fu­ri­ous in the af­ter­math of the re­peal vote and have cast about for ways to pun­ish those they con­sider re­spon­si­ble.

The three Repub­li­can sen­a­tors who cast the de­ci­sive votes on Fri­day — Su­san Collins of Maine, John McCain of Ari­zona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — are largely im­mune to im­me­di­ate elec­toral con­se­quences.

Murkowski, who with­stood pub­lic pres­sure from Trump, is less than a year into a six-year term; McCain, also re­elected last year, is bat­tling an ag­gres­sive form of brain can­cer; and Collins, who has not faced a se­ri­ous pri­mary threat since 1996, next stands for re­elec­tion in 2020 and is con­sid­er­ing a run for gov­er­nor next year.

But ac­tivists are still an­gry that sev­eral other Repub­li­can sen­a­tors — Dean Heller (Nev.), La­mar Alexan­der (Tenn.), Shel­ley Moore Capito (W.Va.) and Rob Port­man (Ohio), as well as McCain and Murkowski — voted for an ACA re­peal mea­sure in 2015, when Pres­i­dent Barack Obama was cer­tain to veto it but op­posed an al­most iden­ti­cal mea­sure this week know­ing Trump could sign it into law.

“That level of cyn­i­cism is breath­tak­ing, even in the po­lit­i­cal world,” said Phillips of Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­ity, which helped drive the pub­lic back­lash to the ACA ahead of the 2010 Repub­li­can con­gres­sional wave.

Only Heller faces re­elec­tion next year, how­ever, and he has yet to at­tract a con­ser­va­tive pri­mary chal­lenger de­spite emerg­ing as a key swing vote who pushed to re­duce the scope of the Se­nate’s ef­forts.

Adam Bran­don, pres­i­dent of the con­ser­va­tive ac­tivist group Free­domWorks, said Heller “opened him­self wide open” to a pri­mary chal­lenge: “By bend­ing over back­ward to save Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion, to pre­serve the fastest-grow­ing en­ti­tle­ment pro­gram in the United States, what con­ser­va­tive, Repub­li­can, lib­er­tar­ian con­stituency were you serv­ing?”

Bran­don, whose group deemed the turn­coats “Free­dom Frauds,” said the events of the past months have re­vealed a party with a dou­ble stan­dard in han­dling its right flank vs. its more mod­er­ate fac­tion.

Had the Se­nate’s lead­ing con­the ser­va­tives tanked the health-care bill, Bran­don said, “they would be re­cruit­ing some­one to pri­mary Mike Lee and Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, but that’s not hap­pen­ing” with Collins, McCain and Murkowski. He also sug­gested that the com­mit­tee chair­man­ships held by the trio ought to be at risk.

In the House, the po­lit­i­cal chal­lenge posed to Repub­li­cans is the op­po­site: Dozens of mem­bers tar­geted for de­feat by na­tional Democrats voted for the Amer­i­can Health Care Act, the GOP bill judged by the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice to re­sult in higher pre­mi­ums for older and sick Amer­i­cans.

Democrats made clear they in­tend to use that vote in their 2018 cam­paigns, even if the bill was never ul­ti­mately made law.

“House Repub­li­cans can’t turn back time and undo the morally bank­rupt vote they took to kick 23 mil­lion Amer­i­cans off their health in­sur­ance, im­pose an un­fair age tax and cause sky­rock­et­ing pre­mi­ums,” said Tyler Law, a spokesman for the Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee. “Speaker Ryan and all House Repub­li­cans own their dis­as­trous bill, and it will cer­tainly haunt their im­per­iled Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity in 2018.”

On the flip side, House Repub­li­can who cast votes for the bill can­not point to any fin­ished prod­uct that might mo­ti­vate more con­ser­va­tive vot­ers. Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), the chair­man of the Na­tional Repub­li­can Con­gres­sional Com­mit­tee, in­sisted that the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the health-care bill would work to the Repub­li­can Party’s ben­e­fit.

“Our base knows what we did,” Stivers said. “But it also isn’t go­ing to be­come law, so … I think they have a hard time re­ally pun­ish­ing our mem­bers for some the­o­ret­i­cal de­tails.”

A hand­ful of mod­er­ate Repub­li­can law­mak­ers said Fri­day they would be open to pur­su­ing a bi­par­ti­san fix to the ACA. But for most rank-and-file Repub­li­cans, the ap­proach is sim­ple: Never say die.

“It’s only a de­feat if we sur­ren­der,” said Rep. Barry Lou­d­er­milk (R-Ga.). “Look, the U.S. Navy was dev­as­tated at Pearl Har­bor, but three years later, the Ja­panese sur­ren­dered to us. … The his­tory books of Amer­ica are marked by us re­bound­ing from de­feat and turn­ing it into vic­tory. We’re go­ing to keep push­ing.”

In­side the closed-door con­fer­ence meet­ing Fri­day, Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) showed his col­leagues clips of early At­lanta Fal­cons touch­downs in this year’s Su­per Bowl — a game won by the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots af­ter a fu­ri­ous 25-point come­back.

Plenty of House mem­bers showed a will­ing­ness to hang the health-care bill’s fail­ure on the Se­nate, which be­cause of its fil­i­buster rules has yet to take up or pass dozens of sig­nif­i­cant House bills. In a fi­nal meet­ing be­fore a five-week sum­mer re­cess, Ryan told his col­leagues that they rep­re­sented the most func­tional branch of govern­ment.

But sev­eral House mem­bers said they were skep­ti­cal that House Repub­li­cans would be able to sep­a­rate them­selves from the other cham­ber’s fail­ure and feared that they, too, would suf­fer from a de­jected GOP base.

Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), who rep­re­sents a blue-col­lar down­state dis­trict that Democrats are heav­ily tar­get­ing in 2018, said he rarely en­coun­ters a con­stituent who airs frus­tra­tions with a par­tic­u­lar cham­ber.

“They never say, ‘Well, it’s the Se­nate or the House.’ What they say it is, ‘It’s Congress,’ ” he said. “I can’t change who the Se­nate is, okay? But I can keep do­ing my job, and that’s what I in­tend to talk about.”

MELINA MARA/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.) goes on and off the floor dur­ing a late-night ses­sion to con­sider the Repub­li­can health­care bill Thurs­day. Af­ter the bill faced de­feat early Fri­day morn­ing, McCon­nell said it was “time to move on.”

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