The Republicans Relearn Politics

The health-care bill is far from dead, and a contentious debate is a sign of vigor.

March 17, 2017
House Speaker Paul Ryan in the U.S. Capitol, March 13. PHOTO: JIM LO


With a hat-tip to Mark Twain, reports of the death of the Republican health-care bill have been greatly, vastly, even bigly exaggerated. What we are witnessing isn’t a legislative demise, but the rebirth of a long-lost Washington concept: politics.

From the moment Speaker Paul Ryan unveiled his ObamaCare repeal-and-replace bill, the media have declared it a doomed project. The newspapers have run out of synonyms for division, disunity, discord, conflict, struggle, mess. Since the only thing the media enjoy more than bashing Republicans is helping Republicans bash each other, the cable stations have offered a nonstop loop of a handful of GOP naysayers and grandstanders (cue Rand Paul) who wish the bill ill.

Perhaps the talking heads can be excused for their dim outlook. The Obama administration marked one of the more dysfunctional and destructive periods in Washington—eight years of threats, executive rule, noncommunication and opposition politics. So it is undoubtedly confusing for some people suddenly to watch an honest-to-goodness legislative process, with all its negotiating, horse-trading and consensus-building.

Under prior management, Nancy Pelosi did her thing, Harry Reid did his thing, President Obama did his thing, and the three tried not to talk if at all possible. The Obama legislative affairs team couldn’t have found Capitol Hill with a map.

Today’s negotiations over the health bill feature a White House that is working hand-in-hand with congressional leaders to get to yes. Even as the critics looped on cable TV, the Trump administration was working with House leaders on a substantive amendment to the bill to address conservative concerns before the legislation hits the floor.

Vice President Mike Pence held a listening session Wednesday with the Republican Study Committee, an influential bloc of 170 House conservatives. President Trump met last week with conservative activists. Sources confirm daily telephone round robins among Mr. Ryan, Mitch McConnell, President Trump, Mr. Pence, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price.

One sign of progress: Rep. Mark Meadows (of the Freedom Caucus) and Sen. Ted Cruz (of Cruz-Still-For-President) penned a joint op-edThursday for this newspaper’s online edition, laying out their demands for the health-care bill. These two super-critics have not only refused to walk away from the negotiating table but are positioning themselves potentially to take credit for changes.

President Obama disdained Congress and didn’t want to legislate. He waited to see if he liked what his Democratic underlings brought him. Today veterans of the legislative process are professing admiration for the way Mr. Trump is handling this deal.

On the one hand, the president has made clear that the Ryan bill must be the vehicle for repeal and replace, and that the consequences of failure would be severe. His rally planned for Monday in Kentucky (cue Rand Paul again) is designed to demonstrate the pressure he can exert on Republican holdouts.

On the other hand, Mr. Trump has wisely refrained from publicly committing to the specifics of the bill, instead using behind-the-scenes meetings to listen, negotiate, nudge. He has, to his credit, ignored all those putative allies telling him to ditch Mr. Ryan & Co.

Speaker Ryan is avoiding his predecessor’s mistakes, too. During the Obama years, Speaker John Boehner struggled to control his conference and the legislative process. True, Mr. Ryan is negotiating, but he’s also relentlessly driving the bill through the chamber. By Thursday, it had cleared three committees, with only three GOP defections. Next up is the Rules Committee, and then it comes to the floor. Mr. Ryan is banking on these deadlines to drive Republicans to make their final deals and then get behind the bill.

He also seems to understand his chamber’s outsize role here. The bill can pass the House only with conservative support. Once gained, that support will make it much harder for GOP senators to balk. Leadership will be able to focus on the demands of a much smaller number of skeptics, and Mr. Trump will be able to target his considerable powers on defectors.

Could all this break down? Yes, but then again, a bill dies only when leadership stops pushing it. Mr. Ryan shows no sign of stopping. This is how it works. Go read your old copy of “Showdown at Gucci Gulch,” which tells how the 1986 tax reform was “dead” a dozen times—until it wasn’t.

This process takes time because the GOP is itself relearning the political craft. It was easy in the Obama years to back “perfect” House legislation, since it would never get through the Senate. It was easier to oppose than it is to propose. Some conservative lawmakers seem to have realized only now that they’d have been better off working in their committees to improve today’s health-care bill than to complain and then later ask for changes.

Is health-care reform inevitable? No. But is it a lost cause? Not even close. Oh, this will be ugly and messy and painful. But only because that’s how real, old-fashioned politics works.

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