In the first major showdown between President Donald Trump and the most conservative lawmakers in America, the conservatives won—but few are declaring victory.
Refusing to budge in their opposition to a Republican healthcare overhaul that they thought didn’t get far enough away from former President Barack Obama’s signature achievement, conservatives have now helped to kill a bill and hand Trump the first major defeat of his presidency – and perhaps his political career.
But the upshot is, the Affordable Care Act that they have spent multiple election cycles railing against and promising to repeal remains intact, and it’s not clear there will be another opportunity to tackle it again soon.
“Victory would be genuinely repealing Obamacare,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, a major conservative group backed by the deep-pocketed Koch brothers. “This is avoiding a negative, but it’s not victory.”
For weeks, conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus and prominent conservative outside groups had been agitating to change the measure, which, they argued, wasn’t comprehensive enough in its rejection of Obamacare. Trump and his administration, along with House leadership, had worked closely with Freedom Caucus members in recent days in an effort to get them on board, but it wasn’t enough to shore up the right flank.
After the unpopular bill fell apart, conservatives avoided blaming Trump, who has threatened to go after lawmakers who didn’t get in line. Instead, they focused on House Speaker Paul Ryan and GOP leadership as they called for a do-over on the legislature.
“Instead of trying to twist the arms of principled conservatives, Paul Ryan should pressure moderates,” said Adam Brandon, the president of FreedomWorks, a conservative group that was vehemently opposed to the bill, in a statement.
Jenny Beth Martin, the co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, a major grassroots group that worked closely with House Freedom Caucus members to oppose the bill, said, “I hope House leadership reaches out to conservatives earlier in the process before they release a bill to the public.”
But on health care, at least, it may be awhile before there’s that opportunity. Trump, who swiped at the House Freedom Caucus in a tweet ahead of the vote on Friday, has made clear he wants to move on to tax reform.
“We’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future,” Ryan said Friday.
Plenty of Republicans are outraged and incredulous that, with a GOP House, Senate and White House, members still couldn’t reach a compromise.
“We’ve been talking about it for seven years,” said Rob Jesmer, a former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of the Senate Republicans. “The idea that we have a few people out there who think an imperfect Trump bill is worse than existing Obamacare, people are going to have a hard time understanding it. I think it’s going to be a huge problem moving forward [for] our ability to govern. People are going to be really disappointed.”
Conservatives are insistent that they are going to stay focused on the issue, urging, as they have for years, a “full repeal” of Obamacare—something they say the bill considered this week didn’t do. FreedomWorks, AFP, Club for Growth and other organizations called for another effort to craft a repeal bill, and the Freedom Caucus was also cheered on by conservative radio hosts like Erick Erickson, the Georgia.-based conservative who authored a post on his website titled, “The House Freedom Caucus saves America.”
“The failure is not having a clean repeal, Obamacare repeal, for which to vote,” Phillips said, when asked to respond to critics who fault conservatives for keeping Obamacare alive by failing to compromise enough on the replacement bill. “That’s the failure. But we’re not giving up. We think this is a long-term effort, and we stand ready to work with the leadership and the White House to get this done.”
The White House on Thursday, however, communicated that if the bill failed, Trump would move on and was willing to accept leaving Obamacare intact.
But one veteran Republican strategist who is working on 2018 races advised against discounting the possibility of another repeal effort at some point before the midterm elections.
“That does not mean, if House Republicans get their (act) together in a year and come up with a bill that actually repeals and replaces Obamacare, the president wouldn’t sign it,” the source said. “That stuff never stops. Nothing is ever final in Washington.”