President Donald Trump and House Republican leaders suffered a huge legislative and political setback as a GOP-crafted bill to repeal and replace Obamacare – the centerpiece of their 2016 campaigns – was allowed to die without even a vote.
Trump asked House Speaker Paul Ryan to cancel the vote half an hour before it was scheduled. It was a retreat for the president, who a day earlier had demanded a vote on the bill and had invested considerable time this week lobbying, threatening, and cajoling Republicans to support it.
In the end, Trump and Ryan, R-Wis., could not convince enough moderate and hardcore conservative Republicans to back the bill that wouldn’t have garnered a single Democratic vote. Republicans could only afford to lose 22 GOP votes for the bill to succeed, and it appeared they were far short.
“Let Obamacare explode,” Trump said. “I think we have to let Obamacare go its way for a little while ... When it explodes, which it will soon, if [Democrats] got together with us and got a real health care bill, I’d be totally open to it.”
But prospects for reviving any Republican plan were dim. GOP lawmakers expressed doubt – and reluctance – to quickly take up health care again.
“I don’t see us coming back to the health care issue, at least this year, maybe not even this year,” said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, a senior Republican lawmaker who had switched from undecided to backing the bill.
The bill’s demise was a victory for the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about 30 conservative Republicans led by Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., They felt the legislation didn’t go far enough to permanently unravel health care regulations introduced by former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
"I promised the people of North Carolina's 11th District that I would fight for a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act and a replacement with a market-driven approach...,” Meadows said.
“I remain wholeheartedly committed to following through on this promise. I know President Trump is committed to repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a system that works for American families, and I look forward to working with him do just that."
Democrats reacted gleefully to news of the bill's withdrawal, saying if Republicans couldn't pass their top legislative priority, they'd struggle to unite behind anything else.
They also took aim at Trump personally, noting that the legislation's poll numbers continued to drop even as he tried to sell it.
It wasn't the kind of performance they expected from someone who once famously wrote "Art of the Deal."
“For a guy who bills himself as the ultimate deal-maker and the ultimate closer, he has clearly struck out bigly on this," said Brendan Boyle, a Democratic congressman from the Philadelphia suburbs.
The congressman said Republicans could still regroup to pass something like tax reform, but that the odds of future successes looks dimmer after Friday's disappointment.
"Clearly this shows that if they couldn’t even get their first major agenda piece done, that does not portend too well for the future," he said.
Republicans who backed the bill spoke of an opportunity lost, the chance to make good on a campaign promise they’d made the day Obamacare became law eight years ago.
“This was the first time in nearly a decade that we had the opportunity to deliver real health reform and relief to the American people,” said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, a physician. “Regrettably some members of our conference could not be convinced of the importance of our mission.”
Other Republicans were relieved there was no vote, and praised Ryan and Trump for pulling the plug and avoiding a politically embarrassing situation.
“The speaker was wise to do that,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, a moderate Republican from Colorado. “I think it would have been fairly combative, sort of internecine warfare, so it was better not to do that.”
In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who would had to deal with a divided Republican conference had the repeal passed the House, said “Obamacare is failing the American people and I deeply appreciate the efforts of the speaker and the president to keep our promise to repeal and replace it.”
“I share their disappointment that this effort came up short,” McConnell added.
Trump thanked his party and Ryan and classified himself as a “team player.” He conceded there were things in the bill he “didn’t particularly love” and called on both parties to work together on future reform because bipartisanship would be “a big, big improvement.” He said in the meantime, Republicans would move on to tax reform.
Ryan was unrepentant. “I’m really proud of the bill that we produced,” he told a news conference after the vote was cancelled. “It would make a dramatic improvement in our health care system.”
The bill faced opposition both from moderate Republicans, who said their constituents would be harmed because the American Health Care Act wouldn’t cover as many people as Obamacare, and from the Freedom Caucus, because the bill didn’t bring premiums down enough. Despite last minute concessions to the Freedom Caucus and a Friday afternoon trip from Ryan to the White House, no agreement was reached.
Anita Kumar, Lesley Clark, Rob Hotakainen, Alex Daugherty, Alex Roarty, Lindsay Wise and Anna Douglas contributed.