It was just after sunrise on March 9, and frustrated Republicans in the House of Representatives entered their 20th hour of debate on Capitol Hill as Democrats stalled during a committee markup of the now-dead health care bill.
Joe Barton, the longest-serving Texan in Congress, was ready to strike a delicious deal.
“The chair would point out that it’s dawn,” said Barton, temporarily serving as the meeting’s leader and using the formal language of Congress. He turned to the committee’s Democrats.
. . . and I will buy Waffle House for everybody in the committee.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, member of the Freedom Caucus
“If the minority would be willing to move all their amendments in block and accept a ‘no’ vote on a voice vote,” he continued, “and if the majority would accept the Barton-Blackburn-Hudson amendment, we could end this. And I will buy Waffle House for everybody in the committee.”
The Waffle House gambit was a preview of Barton’s role in the heath care debate over the next two weeks. A 67-year-old Republican from the Dallas suburb of Ennis, Barton played a prominent role as a member of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus who was willing to bargain with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and President Donald Trump on the GOP’s plan to repeal and replace parts of Obamacare.
Conservative Republicans opposed the bill because it was not a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, while moderate Republicans balked at the prospect of millions losing insurance if the proposal passed.
It didn’t work out, of course. Minutes before a scheduled House floor vote last Friday, Ryan pulled the bill from the floor. He’s pledged to try again but hasn’t given a timetable or details.
Now, Barton says, the way rank-and-file members like him get attention on such a big bill is by showing a bit of ambivalence.
“You want to be a part of the process,” Barton said in an interview. “If you’re just autocratic, you lose the ability to influence the outcome.”
Barton certainly tried to influence the outcome.
In the first few minutes of the marathon markup meeting, where committee members hunkered over binders of paper to shape the bill piece by piece, Barton introduced an amendment that would have pushed up the end of Medicaid expansion from 2020 to 2018. His proposal, intended to woo skeptical conservatives, drew a sly look from committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., the man who beat out Barton for the chairmanship in December.
Eventually, Barton withdrew his amendment and voted for the bill in committee.
As the bill moved closer to the House floor, the somewhat secretive Freedom Caucus drew national attention as a group of rogue hard-liners who met with the president multiple times last week to discuss their concerns. Barton was among them, the first time that he’s been publicly associated with the group after joining about six months ago.
After Barton emerged from a Freedom Caucus meeting in a Mexican restaurant steps from Capitol Hill and told reporters he was a “friendly lean ‘no’ ” on the bill, the Texan was thrust into the national spotlight.
Barton’s office received 200 to 300 media requests per day last week, reporters swarmed the congressman wherever he went on Capitol Hill and he ventured to the White House twice in three days to broker a deal with Trump.
Then, hours before the bill was scheduled for a full vote, Barton relented. He announced his support, donned a Texas flag tie and walked to the House floor to give a speech.
“Mr. Speaker,” Barton said in his Texas drawl, “we always want to score a touchdown; sometimes we settle for a field goal. What we don’t want to do today is take a safety.
“Vote for this bill,” he said. “Let’s send it to the other body and let’s continue to improve it.”
But Republicans took a safety, and Trump’s biggest campaign promise sputtered 5 yards from the goal line. Barton referred to the saga as “fantasy football” in a quote that went viral in the liberal blogosphere after the bill was pulled.
Fellow Texas Republicans such as freshman Rep. Jodey Arrington of Lubbock lamented the lack of a vote, and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, left the Freedom Caucus over the tiff, but Barton is willing to continue dealing until the votes are there.
“There are people that just flat didn’t understand what was in the bill, and some of the newer members I don’t think totally yet understand the limitations of the reconciliation process,” Barton said. “It’s complicated. This is prime-time stuff.”
Barton said his near-vote on last Friday’s bill was one of the “top 10” hardest decisions he’s had to make in Congress, but it still trails the hardest one: his vote to authorize military force in Kuwait for the Gulf War in 1991.
“At that time we thought there were going to be huge casualties, and it’s pretty tough to vote knowing that lots and lots of people are going to get killed,” Barton said.
It’s unclear whether the push to repeal and replace parts of Obamacare is dead or alive. Ryan hinted to reporters on Thursday that House GOP leadership is still corralling votes.
But Trump has said he wants to move on and tackle tax restructuring, something that hasn’t been touched since the Reagan administration.
“I’m open to talking about health care again, but I want to be really talking about tax reform and get a victory for the president,” said Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, whose district extends into Tarrant County.
Barton, the only member of the Freedom Caucus from North Texas, finds himself at odds with the president after an early-morning presidential tweet on Thursday blasted the group of conservative lawmakers.
“The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast,” Trump tweeted. “We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”
Barton will likely not face serious intraparty opposition for his seat in 2018, and he sees the health care debate differently than the president does. He maintains the Freedom Caucus is ready to work with Trump and Ryan to get things done.
“I know that our Freedom Caucus folks wanted to be part of a solution,” Barton said. “We will bridge that gap. It means identifying the members of our caucus that were not prepared to vote for the bill last week, get them together collectively or individually, find out where their bottom line is and find the path forward. Politically there is always a way. There is always a way.”
But that way won’t involve waffles. Barton’s early-morning Waffle House offer was quickly shot down by House Democrats and the debate lingered for seven more hours.
“Can’t do it,” shouted one Democrat in response to Barton’s overture of diner food.