GOP short of votes on health care bill as deadline looms

Liz Goodwin
·Senior National Affairs Reporter

WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Friday appeared to be short of the votes they need to pass a Donald Trump-pushed bill to overhaul the nation’s health care system mere hours before they were scheduled to vote on the package.

The Associated Press reported early Friday afternoon that the bill had yet to obtain enough votes to pass, according to House lawmakers and staffers, with a vote scheduled for 3:30 p.m. that afternoon.

Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., left the Capitol for the White House to brief Trump on his progress whipping votes for the American Health Care Act, which would repeal Obamacare and replace it with a Republican alternative that the House caucus’ conservative and moderate wings have objected to.

It’s unclear if Ryan will still hold the vote and force members to go on record with where they stand, as the White House reportedly wanted. A Ryan spokeswoman said she had no update on whether the bill would be pulled or a vote would still take place.

“I advised leadership not to put it on the floor unless they had the votes, so I certainly hope we have them,” Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, told Yahoo News on Friday afternoon. He said the vote would be a “cliffhanger” as it currently stands.

House leadership were coy all day about whether they could pass the bill under the hard terms the president demanded late Thursday night. Mobbed by reporters asking him whether he had the votes, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said, “Why can’t we be positive? I’m an optimistic man.”

Earlier Friday, members of Congress expressed doubt about whether the bill, which has sharply divided its caucus, could pass on Friday as the president demanded.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., told Yahoo News that the bill’s chances were “too close to call,” and that he was still mulling his vote a few hours ahead of decision time.

“I don’t think we go to the floor with any certainty of success,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., after emerging from an early morning Rules Committee meeting.

House Speaker Paul Ryan delivers very brief remarks and takes no questions following a Thursday meeting of the House Republican caucus. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
House Speaker Paul Ryan delivers brief remarks and takes no questions following a Thursday meeting of the House Republican caucus. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The legislation now would allow states to decide whether insurers should be allowed to sell plans that do not offer essential health benefits, such as maternity care and hospitalization, by 2020. But it also would set up a fund by delaying the repeal of Obamacare’s Medicare tax on high earners that would let states bankroll some benefits, such as maternity care and mental health services, if they choose.

Asked whether there were enough votes to pass the American Health Care Act as he left the meeting, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said, “We’re doing our best.”

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said he was an “optimist” and believed it would pass. “I feel pretty good about where we’re at.” When asked by this reporter about what would happen if it failed, the lawmaker replied, “Stop that!” and suggested drinking some coffee.

The troubled bill got a boost late Thursday night when members of the administration, including top adviser Steve Bannon and chief of staff Reince Priebus, descended on Capitol Hill to give a stern pep talk to the leadership and the conservative House Freedom Caucus. After that gathering, the GOP conference went downstairs for a “family meeting” to sort out their differences, which Cole described as “extremely emotional.”

Some conservative holdouts on the bill stood up during that meeting and said they would now support it. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., told reporters Thursday night he switched from undecided to leaning yes. “It was a family meeting: It was emotional, it was intense,” he said. Others said they wanted to ponder it further. “I think it was important to think on it overnight and sort through this and make some fundamental decisions,” Cole said.

Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, delivered the message that the Republicans had to vote on the bill Friday or Trump would move on from the issue and they would be “stuck with” Obamacare, further adding pressure on the caucus. Trump has previously said he thinks the smartest political move would be to let Obamacare exchanges “fail” and then blame Democrats. But Mulvaney’s message, as well as a tweet calling out the Freedom Caucus on Friday morning, raised the possibility that the president would blame House Republicans, not Democrats, if the legislation falls short.

Cole agrees with the president that if the measure fails Friday, GOP members of Congress will get the blame, not Trump.

“The Republican conference gets the blame,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the president’s fault. He’s done everything he could do. … A great mistake would be to go vote no.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has been taunting Trump as his conference scrambles to whip votes, calling him a “rookie” who neglected to build consensus before announcing a floor vote.