Health Bill’s Failure Would Tell Us A Lot

Things can always change, but as of now it looks like the plan is for Speaker Paul Ryan to bring the health care bill to a vote tomorrow under the threat, issued from the White House, that if the bill is rejected there will be no more attempts to pass it. It’s a desperate effort to convince the hold-outs, particularly in the hardline Freedom Caucus, that they won’t get more concessions nor another chance to say that they killed President Obama’s most prized achievement.

It’s an interesting negotiating tactic because it depends on two things. First, it’s operating on the flawed premise that the people who are expected to vote for this bill believe that they will be better off politically for having done so. Second, it relies on the credibility of the threat. If this bill fails to pass tomorrow, will that be the last time in Trump’s presidency that any effort will be made to repeal Obamacare? If rank-and-file Republicans believe this, then maybe the logic is compelling. But if they don’t believe it, then it isn’t a real threat.

I know Donald Trump is supposed to be an expert on the Art of the Deal, and maybe he will prove himself worthy of that reputation. But his strategy is not very opaque here. And I don’t think he has the credibility to convince folks that he means what he says even though he may be completely sincere.

If the moment gets close to a vote and the whips announce that the bill with fail, it’s possible that it may get pulled again. But it sounds like they’re going to make the caucus walk the plank, show their cards, and go on the record. It won’t be a good vote to have on their record regardless of how they cast it.

For Speaker Ryan, it could cripple him in much the same way that Speaker John Boehner was crippled by his right flank. It will be more proof that the Republicans cannot function as a partisan majority. With Boehner, they needed to ask for Democratic votes repeatedly. That’s becoming less and less of an option, and it could come to a head when it’s time to raise the debt ceiling again.

A failure on health care will deny Ryan the funds he needs to pass a partisan tax reform bill, meaning that the two top legislative priorities of the year could go down in one late-March vote. If they want to move on to an infrastructure bill, they’ll find that that can’t pass on a partisan vote, either.

The only way the House leadership can function is by cutting out of the right flank and going to the Democrats to form their majorities, which is why I have long advocated a cross-partisan governing coalition for the House where some Democrats get committee chairs. It was the only way that Boehner could have saved his job, and he wouldn’t take the step out of party loyalty. Paul Ryan won’t do it either, but if his speakership fails and there is a new election, the moderate Republicans are going to have to consider making the kind of deal I envision.

It would actually be the only thing that could conceivably save Trump’s presidency, because it would not compel him but would give him permission to move away from this unworkable plan to govern based on only Republican votes. If he really wants to wheel and deal, he needs the freedom to get away from rigid far-right conservative orthodoxy. He didn’t run as that candidate, so he’s crazy to try to govern that way.

Look where it got him. Here he is trying to cajole people into voting for a bill that breaks almost every promise he made about health care. He couldn’t create a workable replacement for Obamacare that would cover everyone, keep prices low, and make people happier unless he was willing to get beyond conservative myths and talking points. He isn’t a down the line conservative and his effort to govern like one is bringing him to early ruin.

In any case, even if this bill somehow passes tomorrow, its chances in the Senate are approximately nil. I expect the Republicans senators are pretty much uniformly with the rest of us in hoping that Speaker Ryan fails and gets to take all the blame.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.