Republicans exulted in November when they won the White House and both congressional chambers, promising aggressive moves on health care, taxes and immigration.
But a spectacular stumble on the first agenda item amid intra-party squabbles begs the question of whether the party will be able to get anything done if it can’t deliver on a promise it has made for nearly a decade.
“We were a 10-year opposition party, where being against things was easy to do,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, faced with the biggest loss of his career. “And now in three months’ time we tried to go to a governing party. We will get there, but we weren’t there today.”
Ryan got his job after House Speaker John Boehner stepped down, often pressed by a raucous conservative wing to take a harder line. But though conservative members groused about Ryan’s handling of the legislation – saying he had boxed out various factions, many expressed confidence Friday that he’d retain his seat – for practical reasons, as well as political.
“I don’t think another member of our conference wants that job,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., who backed the health care bill and remains a close confidant of President Donald Trump. Regardless of their positions on the health care bill, lawmakers “are solidly behind Speaker Ryan,” Collins said.
Ryan has “almost unanimous support” in the Republican conference, said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., who voted for the bill in committee but refused to say how he would vote on the floor. “No one could do a better job of leading House Republicans. We believe in him, this doesn’t change anything.”
Trump, too, praised Ryan for his efforts.
“He worked very hard,” Trump said, citing “lots of different groups, lots of factions and there’s been a long history of liking and disliking within the Republican Party long before I got here. Certainly there’s a history but I really think Paul worked hard.”
Moderate Republican Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado said the mood was somber as Ryan spoke and delivered the news: The vote was cancelled, not just delayed.
“The speaker was wise to do that,” Coffman said. “I think it would have been fairly combative, sort of internecine warfare.”
Coffman said it was clear Ryan didn’t want to force members to take a vote on the measure, despite Trump’s call for them to do so. “What the speaker said very clearly is, ‘Look, it’s a controversial bill in a lot of districts, so why put people on the record for something that’s not going to happen? What’s the point?’”
Republicans sought to play down the effect of failing to deliver on their first effort. But the financial services firm KBW warned investors that collapse of the bill could illustrate an inability to govern, making the prospect for tax reform iffy, as well as increasing the chance of a government shutdown in April and a “messy fight” over raising the debt ceiling in this fall.
The bill’s demise will complicate efforts to overhaul the tax code – a priority for Trump, but a hugely ambitious ask for even a well-functioning Congress.
“It’s a big hit, it makes it very difficult to do the tax reform that a lot of us think that we need to do,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.
By failing to pass the Ryan healthcare bill, the math got more complicated for any tax reform that neither raises nor lowers the deficit, thus adding to the same sort of political complexities that felled the replacement bill.
Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson said he didn’t think the collapse of the health care debate would hurt the party’s efforts in the long term.
“I don’t really think it affects the rest of the agenda,” Simpson said. “I think we still want to do tax reform, but we’re going to run into challenges. ... I suspect it will not be as ugly as this, but it will be a debate. That’s the way this system is supposed to work. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose.”
Ryan has another concern as he moves forward with the House agenda: Some of the most endangered members of his conference backed the health care bill in committee votes before it was pulled from a vote on the House floor, meaning they could be vulnerable to attacks over the unpopular legislation even though it didn’t come up for a full House vote.
One poll released this week found only 17 percent of voters backed the GOP’s bill, compared with 56 percent who opposed it.
Democrats said Friday that they plan to target more than a dozen Republican incumbents over the health care vote – attacks that could make these GOP lawmakers less inclined to take political risks in the future.
“Their constituents deserve answers as to why they were voting ‘yes’ on this bill, which was horrible then, horrible today,” said Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., who is charge of the House Democrats’ political operation. “We’ll continue to take this fight to the American people.”
The list of Republicans who voted for the bill in committee includes Reps. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., Curbelo, R-Fla., and Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., all of whom Democrats consider vulnerable to a challenger next year.
“Congratulations to Speaker Ryan for making fourteen vulnerable House Republicans walk the plank on a disastrous repeal bill that did not even make it to the floor,” said Tyler Law, spokesman for the House Democrats’ political arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Democrats insisted they took no pleasure in the opposition party’s contortions, but 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.
Republicans could still regroup to pass something like tax reform, but the odds looked 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,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa.
Democrats were already looking to 2018, believing they had a case to make, regardless of the outcome of the vote. Failing to pass the legislation opens Republicans to charges that they broke their promises, but Democrats said that passage of the bill may have meant millions lost insurance.
“They may feel damned if they don’t,” said Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “We believe they’ll be even more damned if they do.”
Before the collapse on the House floor, few members wanted to consider a loss, but insisted Congress would move on.
“If it fails the president is going to move on,” said Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas. “That’s what you have to do in business. If you fail, you move on, you don’t worry about it. He’s going to move on and we’ll have tax reform on our plate.”
Williams cut Ryan slack, calling his job difficult, noting that when “you get 435 or 242 superstars that have their own thought about how things ought to be done … it’s hard to rally and that’s one thing you’ve got to do is talk to everybody.”
But a number of Republicans complained that Ryan – like previous House Speaker John Boehner, who lost his seat amid a conservative revolt – failed to include them in deliberations. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., who opposed the bill, blasted the lack of committee hearings and complained that not a single person testified on the legislation.
“Republicans have a great ability to govern, you just have to basically let them do their jobs,” Amodei said. “I don’t know whose call it is because nobody called me and asked for my opinion, but if that was (Ryan’s) call then there’s probably some hindsight here.”
A loss should force some serious soul searching, said Rep.. Paul Gosar, R-Az., a member of the House Freedom Caucus who opposed the bill. He too, charged that debate had been “stifled” and conservatives shunted aside.
“If you’re a good leader, you’re going to look at where the process went wrong and how do I change to make it right,” he said of Ryan. He noted Congress doesn’t have much room to maneuver.
“We have so many inflection points coming our way,” he said. “We’ve got big issues on the line and it’s time to do it right so you don’t keep kicking the can down the road.”
But as the health care debate illustrated, by catering to the conservative members of his caucus, Ryan risks losing the more moderate members, some of whom represent districts won by Hillary Clinton.
Still, Ryan insisted there was a way forward, telling reporters minutes after pulling the bill, “we’re going to move on with the rest of our agenda because we have big ambitious plans.”
Alex Roarty, Lindsay Wise, Michael Doyle, Kevin G. Hall and Rob Hotakainen and contributed to this report.