House Republicans proved during their Obamacare repeal debate that a few stubborn members could withhold support just long enough to force GOP leaders — and even the president — to bend to their will.
Now, senior Republicans are worried the success of those tactics could encourage similar brinkmanship, complicating efforts to pass tax reform and other parts of President Donald Trump’s agenda.
GOP leaders and the White House frequently stated that the so-called American Health Care Act had been finalized, only to watch recalcitrant members balk. With the entire plan in jeopardy, leadership relented and changed the bill.
“If for whatever reason, they want to hold you hostage, they can,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a veteran House Republican and leadership ally.
Cole said the decision to focus on passing the AHCA entirely along party lines created such a narrow margin of error for GOP leaders that it empowers small blocs of members or even individual lawmakers to force last-minute changes to legislation.
GOP leaders are now planning on taking the same approach on tax reform, which could mean trouble.
Cole says he’s optimistic for one central reason: passing a health care bill forced warring factions of the House GOP conference to work together in ways they never have before. That goodwill, he said, could carry over into the next fight.
“It was a bumpy ride on health care reform,” Cole said. “But I actually think going through it helped us.”
Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Va.), a member of the hard-line Freedom Caucus, was one of the initial holdouts on the AHCA; he banded together with other members of the conservative caucus to oppose the bill in March, even as he and his colleagues faced the wrath of the White House..
“What they told us was it’s this or nothing. It’s now or never. And I simply refused to believe it,” he said. Garrett said the health care debate was too important to declare permanently closed, and he turned out to be right.
But that attitude portends a potentially messy fight over tax reform, where complicated political crosscurrents and a tangle of lobbyists could once again carve the House GOP conference into competing factions.
Asked whether he was worried that the health care process could encourage similar resistance in the tax reform fight, one ally of House leadership demurred.
“Good question,” said Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), adding that he hoped the House would return to the “regular order” through which legislation typically moves, avoiding some of the messier elements that drove the health care debate.
Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said he’s had numerous conversations with the White House and is encouraging them, along with leadership, to “make some very difficult decisions very quickly.”
Meadows also said he hopes the first proposal Congress considers hews toward conservatives and that then tweaks are made to corral moderates, which is how House Republicans finally pushed the AHCA over the finish line.
A spokeswoman for Speaker Paul Ryan said Republicans were working on a plan with allies in the House and Senate that “we can all coalesce around.”
Republicans may be more ideologically aligned on tax reform, but the details may be even more complicated to iron out than health care. Tax reform affects the entire economy, so parochial interests of various districts — agriculture, auto dealers, real estate, retailers and the utilities through which constituents get their power and water — all have strong arguments to bring to their representatives.
So far, House leaders have tried to assuage those factions and their constituencies by embracing a more deliberate drafting process, with plenty of listening in between.
“I think one of the lessons learned from health care is that compressed timetables are more difficult,” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, told POLITICO recently. “Because you don’t have the opportunity to do a hearing, to invite input, to have plenty of time to go back home and listen to constituents about that. And so on tax reform, as we continue to push forward the committee will be holding hearings on the blueprint and inviting opinions on that.”
Committee hearings on tax reform began in the House last week.
Cole said one way to prevent a repeat of the splintering and ad hoc negotiations that marked the health care debate is to go slower and allow more members to participate in the initial drafting of big-ticket legislation.
“The lesson here is to trust the legislative process,” he said. “You’re not going to have people think up a piece of legislation as complicated as tax reform and expect it to go through without amendments. … Members are not going to accept grand visionary schemes coming down from on high.”
Tax reform conversations with members, their staff and industry stakeholders began in November, weeks after Trump won the presidency.
“They cannot be accused of not consulting,” with members of Congress and industry groups said Ryan Ellis, a Republican tax lobbyist who’d been in to speak with committee officials a handful of times. Timing for different provisions and carve-outs for industries will drive much of the process going forward, as even obscure trade associations will fight tooth and nail to protect themselves.
“It’s going to have sausage-making,” said Ellis. “That’s a feature not a bug in the democratic political process.”
Republicans intend to move tax reform through so-called budget reconciliation, which allows legislation to be passed in the House and Senate with simple majorities, avoiding Democratic filibusters. To use that powerful procedure, the GOP-led Congress will first have to pass a budget, which will not be easy.
“You’ve got to figure out a way to keep everybody happy on a budget resolution,” Ellis said, adding it will be a “heavy” lift.
Republican factions like the Freedom Caucus and centrist Tuesday Group, which flexed their muscles during the healthcare debate, may be able to do so more effectively in the budget process than in tax reform, which requires extensive staff expertise usually concentrated at the Ways and Means Committee.
“We’ve got to get a budget passed,” before moving forward on tax reform said a House Republican leadership aide who requested anonymity to speak freely. The staffer said that when the White House became more engaged on healthcare it helped move the process forward; Republicans hope that momentum will continue on other difficult efforts, like tax reform and the budget.
However, with Trump embroiled in investigations over his ties to Russia, GOP lawmakers may be increasingly on their own.
National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have begun meeting with members to discuss strategy. But the White House has expressed skepticism about key features of the House Republican plan, even as congressional Republicans were somewhat cool to the release of Trump’s tax goals last month.
“I think the biggest thing we need to do is be on the same page as the White House,” said the leadership aide. “It’s going to be a longer process than it was with healthcare.”