One extra day could not buy President Donald Trump and his Republican Congress the first major legislative victory they needed to set the tone for the new administration.
Republicans canceled a crucial health care bill vote at the last minute Friday rather than lose a battle of numbers on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
President Trump's Own Party Hands Him Stunning Defeat
The cancellation followed a chaotic Thursday when the leadership postponed a vote in the hope that 24 more hours could win a long-promised repeal and replacement of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Ryan delivered the news
House Speaker Paul Ryan rallied his splintered Republican Party during an emergency meeting in the depths of the Capitol after delivering the bad news in person to Trump at the White House.
The once-certain health care bill victory threw into question the rest of the Republican agenda addressing tax reform, government spending and infrastructure funding. Even though Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House, the reactions of members leaving the meeting gave varying clues on how the party moves forward.
A grim-faced Mark Meadows, chair of the House Freedom Caucus, offered no comment as he left the meeting led by Ryan. The conservative caucus helped bring down the Speaker’s bill, suggesting it was too close in form to the so-called Obamacare.
Other members looked visibly uncomfortable with questions about the next steps for Republicans.
“It’s unchartered territory, but it certainly doesn’t bode well as our first attempt out of the box to govern,” said Congressman Tom Rooney, a Republican from Florida. “We’re in power and we have the ability to do things and we’re not doing it.”
In a tweet Sunday morning, Trump suggested Republicans will wait for the current health care law to fail - something the president and other Republicans predicted as one justification for the attempted overhaul - before trying again to replace it.
Many Republicans leaving the meeting said they had no issue with Ryan’s leadership after the vote cancellation.
“I will not sugarcoat this, this is a disappointing day for us,” Ryan told reporters Friday afternoon. “Doing big things is hard. All of us, all of us, myself included, we will need time to reflect on how we got to this moment, what we could have done to do it better.”
The uncertainty of those final moments as Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Ryan worked back rooms and phone lines to squeeze out a victory, sent restless Republicans out into the hallways of Congress.
Trump supporters such as Congressman Chris Collins, who knew they would be a yes vote, could only wait and contemplate the accusations that might eat away at the party.
“The anger in our conference would be palatable if they pull the vote,” Collins told VOA during those tense afternoon hours when a vote was still expected.
“I’m not going to blame leadership, I’m not going to blame the president, I’m not going to blame the speaker, the leader, or the whip. I’d say we line up 237 Republicans and say, ‘Look in the mirror, read it,’ ” he said.
“There’s no way that it’s anything but an absolute, mitigated disaster, both for the president and for Speaker Ryan,” Donald Kettl, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland told VOA. “There’s no way that it’s anything but a personal failure for the president. He had said that what he was going to do was to prove himself the ultimate dealmaker, and the first deal he had to make he couldn’t pull it off.”
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The challenge of governing
But many Republicans leaving the emergency meeting hoped the experience would inform Trump’s future legislative efforts.
“My guess is that he has learned through this process that politics is different than business,” said Congressman Bill Huizenga, a Republican from Michigan. With key 2018 midterm elections only a year and a half away, he said the president will need to remember the first priority for members of Congress.
“For me, we’re all independent contractors that have 700,000 people that hire us every two years for our job review. So I don’t hold to him for my job or my policy or my direction. I just think philosophically I’m going to work with the guy where I can work with him,” Huizenga said.
Other Republicans said there were ways around predictions that a failure over health care reform would doom their party’s agenda.
“A lot of people in this building, they talk and everything is potentially catastrophic, cataclysmic — well we know that’s not the case. If you want to do health care reform, do it on a bipartisan basis,” Congressman Charlie Dent, a Republican from Pennsylvania, told reporters after the meeting.
Dent is a member of the so-called Tuesday Group of moderate Republicans who objected to the changes suggested by the conservative Freedom Caucus, giving Trump and Ryan another front to fight the health care battle.
Despite today’s loss, Dent told VOA there’s still a way forward for the next items in the president’s policy agenda.
“We should be doing tax reform and infrastructure absolutely,” Dent said.
Those efforts could be complicated by a newly empowered Democratic Party that Trump blamed for the loss instead of mentioning his own party.
“We were very close to doing it,” he told reporters Friday afternoon. “But when you get no votes from the other — meaning the Democrats — it’s really difficult.”
Democrats were more than willing to accept Trump’s words after a week of negotiations that show he still has many to win over in his own party.
“Did he blame us for the defeat of his flagship issue?” elated Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asked reporters. “We’ll take credit for that.”