The pulling of the GOP health-care bill this week was a big loss, and perhaps significant beyond its own costs, as it may signal that the “Area 51” sub-caucus within the Freedom Caucus is made up not so much of conservative Republicans as parties of one with no interest in an agenda shared beyond whatever exists in the space between their own ears. They appear to believe in legislative flying saucers that can appear out of a parallel universe where neither the rules of the Senate generally nor of budget reconciliation specifically apply. Such extraterrestrial lawmaking doesn’t actually exist, but too many in the Freedom Caucus seem to think it does.
But it was still, the record must show, a very good week for the conservative cause generally and President Donald Trump specifically. He promised a worthy successor to Justice Antonin Scalia, and Judge Neil Gorsuch proved to be that in his hearings. Gorsuch also seems to have triggered the return of the now-Charles Schumer-led political madness of the Harry Reid era. Schumer, the Senate minority leader, has promised a filibuster of Gorsuch, which will oblige Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to invoke the “Reid Rule”—which allows the Senate’s rules and precedents to be changed by a simple majority vote. The first application of the Reid Rule allowed Democrats to avoid supermajority confirmation of life-tenured federal appellate and district court judges and executive branch nominees. The second application would break the rule about supermajority confirmation of Supreme Court justices. Originalists have long wanted this result. Now we will get it, along with a great originalist justice in Neil Gorsuch.
So Trump had good reason to shake off the rebuff from the Freedom Caucus and the pulling of the health-care bill, and despite his Oval Office aside about being surprised by the lack of loyalty in the caucus, he was loyal to House Speaker Paul Ryan, as was Ryan to Trump. This bodes well for the party and for governing over the next 18 months.
What doesn’t bode well is the shared decision of president and speaker to advance next on tax reform, with the twin political death traps of abolition of the home mortgage interest deduction and the state and local taxes deduction. I expect (and hope) for a loss on those Beltway Holy Grails not sought by many, if any, outside of it. A corporate tax cut, yes, and tax simplification, yes, but not two big intraparty squabbles and crackups in a row.
Better to go for infrastructure, including the border wall, and best of all, the fulfillment of the promise of a 350-ship Navy and the general defense buildup that needs to surround that Trump goal.
To that end, though, there needs to be a nomination rush, and soon, in both the Defense and State departments. And those nominees need to be Republicans.
This is the good week that could have been much better. Putting a 30-year-plus originalist on the court will be a history-maker. A legislative loss is an inevitability. The latter is disappointing, but the lessons learned along the way are invaluable to everyone, even the Republican members who will be punished in ways large and small in the weeks, months and years ahead.
I would have preferred the best of weeks. But I’d take a likely SCOTUS confirmation over a one-house-of-Congress win any day. The real pain millions will continue to feel from the accelerating collapse of Obamacare could have been avoided, but as the president and others have noted, “collapse and replace” may have political advantages over “repeal and replace.” I’d prefer real reform, but the political benefits are not bad consolation prizes.
The GOP leadership team needs to keep planning and keep pressing, and the 2018 cycle has to adjust for some casualties from among the inside-the-caucus wreckers who will draw primary challengers and thus be bled before the general. But on the Senate side, where Democrats facing the 2018 midterms were probably hoping for some health-care theatrics in their chamber to wipe away the memory of the Gorsuch hearings, the smiles are forced.
A good week for the GOP. It could have been a great one.
Now, though, with Aetna’s president voicing what everyone blessed with behind-closed-doors objectivity understands—that the Obamacare “death cycle” is real—the opportunity for health-care reform legislation shifts to the Senate, where the doors of Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Finance Committee, must be open to ranking Democrats Patty Murray (Wash.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) should the latter want to approach the former with reform proposals. Democrats face a potential disaster with 25 of their seats up in 2018 and only eight of the GOP incumbents campaigning. The urgency to find a fix to Obamacare’s collapse should be on Senate Democrats. If they can find a way to gracefully exit the nightmare of Obamacare without calling it a repudiation of the former president, the Senate GOP should listen and consult with Trump and Ryan about genuine bipartisan compromises. Those could include immigration regularization, targeted infrastructure, tax reform and, of course, the defense buildup via an end to the sequester. A big deal would have to come out of the Senate, and it would have to be mostly—though not exclusively—the GOP’s agenda, and it might keep Democratic losses down to a handful of seats in 2018.
That way, of course, votes the Area 51 sub-caucus of the Freedom Caucus off the island. But that’s what they asked for. They prefer their late-night meetings and cold-pizza breakfasts to legislation that addresses the country’s many deep problems. If Alexander and Hatch start meeting with Murray and Wyden, good—not great, but good—things could happen.
What doesn’t bode well is the shared decision of president and speaker to advance next on tax reform, with the twin political death traps of abolition of the home mortgage interest deduction and the state and local taxes deduction.
I stopped in for a check-up this week at my doctor’s office and, as I stood in the waiting area, I surveyed the patients and wondered which of them—which of us—will be able to afford a visit a year from now. When I talked with the doctor later, he seemed to wonder too.
In the last few years the portion of uninsured Americans slid to record lows, another way of saying that health care has become available to more of us—many more than a decade ago. The system is not perfect or cheap, but insured care is more affordable. The new bill being wrangled over in the U.S. House, planned for a vote this last week, would put insurance—health care—out of reach for tens of millions of Americans, and weaken or make more expensive coverage for tens of millions more.
This has gotten lots of attention around the country, but less, it seems, in debates and discussions in Congress. How are Idaho’s two House members—participants in the battle underway (as this was written Thursday evening)—framing the talk about it?
In different ways.
Raul Labrador released this (lightly edited here) as his position statement on March 8:
“Six years ago, I promised the people of Idaho that I would do everything I could to fully repeal and replace Obamacare with a healthcare system that focused on people, not programs. One built around successful health outcomes, not the bottom line of insurance companies. ... I have spent the last two days studying the American Health Care Act, and unfortunately, it is not that bill. Upon its release, President Trump signaled his willingness to negotiate. I’m eager to take him up on this offer. All good legislative solutions must go through rigorous debate, and I’m willing to work with the leadership in the House, and the President, to find a solution to this critical problem. What I won’t do is break the pledge I made to the people of Idaho who sent me here to fix this. I am hopeful we can have an open and honest debate on this issue. We owe it to the people of Idaho and the nation to get it right.”
What does “get it right” mean? Right for who? What insurance would people have when they get sick? No specifics are on offer.
As of Thursday evening, Labrador said he remained opposed to the new bill, as well as the ACA. What he would rather have is unclear. Others in the “Freedom Caucus” (of which he’s a member) seem to want a simple ACA repeal, or something close to it: a return to 2009 which would, like the current bill, throw tens of millions off insurance, end coverage guarantees and return to higher increases in premiums. Would Labrador go along with that?
Mike Simpson, by profession a dentist before joining Congress, is not clearer. He like Labrador has repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but as to the specifics of what should follow ... He’s not released a general statement on the new proposal by House Speaker Paul Ryan as Labrador has, though a spokesman said, “it is impossible to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ because changes are currently being made and we haven’t seen the final bill.” True; the terms of the bill seem continually up for grabs, and a House vote may happen before many of them even are analyzed. But as with Labrador, we haven’t heard much about specifics.
Simpson, who has been close to House leadership for some years, also was quoted by National Public Radio: “One of the reasons I don’t want this bill to fail is I don’t want Paul to fail.”
I doubt that the people in physician waiting rooms in Idaho Falls and Nampa next year will much care about Paul Ryan’s political stature. They’re more likely to be concerned about whether, or not, they can afford the health care they need.
That may be the subject of a lot of questions, for both Labrador and Simpson, in months to come.