Obamacare repeal thwarted again as Mike Pence fails to reach deal

Lauren Gambino, Ben Jacobs and Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington
Mike Pence departs after a meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday in Washington DC. Photograph: Aaron P Bernstein/Getty Images

Less than two weeks after a stone-faced Paul Ryan admitted defeat and declared the Affordable Care Act the “law of the land” for the “foreseeable future”, his ill-fated healthcare plan began to show sparks of life.

Hopes of reviving the Republicans’ failed healthcare plan surged briefly on Tuesday when the vice-president, Mike Pence, came to Capitol Hill in an attempt to forge a new compromise that could somehow pass the House of Representatives.

But the late night talks between Pence and members of competing factions of the House Republican caucus stalled and no deal was reached. A hoped-for repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, returned to the grave and recriminations began anew on Capitol Hill.

Chris Collins, a moderate Trump ally from New York, said resignedly that the ball was in the court of the Freedom Caucus, a coalition of arch-conservative legislators who didn’t support the initial Republican healthcare proposal. “We built them a bridge,” said Collins. “All they have to do is walk across.” He added, simply: “The problem is with the Freedom Caucus.”

To Collins, this faction within the House GOP had been not been straightforward in negotiating over healthcare in recent days. “Indications … were on Monday that they wanted to get to yes,” said Collins. “Actions speak louder than words and over the past few days, actions would indicate that those words would not have been sincere.”

In his opinion, the Freedom Caucus kept on “moving the goal posts”.

Conservatives returned fire. Mo Brooks of Alabama, a member of the Freedom Caucus, noted that House Republicans had voted to totally replace the ACA in 2015 and reluctance to do anything less than that represented a flip-flop. In Brooks’s opinion, those who wanted to preserve parts of the ACA had “not only moved the goalposts, they’ve taken out the stadium, chopped ’em up and burned them”.

On Wednesday, conservative groups lashed out at moderate Republicans, blaming them for derailing the latest attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Dan Holler, the vice-president of Heritage Action, said conservatives had already “ceded a lot of ground” on fully repealing the healthcare law.

“We’re looking at ways to get our message out,” Holler said in an interview Wednesday, hinting at the possibility of running advertisements in the districts of some moderates.

“The obvious hurdle in the negotiations to repeal and replace Obamacare – primarily, that is becoming the more moderate wing of the Republican party in the House.”

This was echoed by David McIntosh, president of Club for Growth, who said in a statement: “The leftwing among House Republicans doesn’t want to compromise or keep their pledge to voters to repeal Obamacare.”

On Capitol Hill, moderates derided these statements as fundraising ploys. Collins told the Guardian: “The idea that Club for Growth and Heritage Action is blaming the Tuesday Group and moderates is nothing but a fundraising ploy.”

Conservatives remain focused on repealing the regulatory architecture of Obamacare, absent which they argue the fundamentals of the law will stay intact. An agreement, Holler said, was contingent upon “moderate members doing the things they’ve promised their constituents they would do”.

Moderate Republicans have meanwhile balked at the prospect of weakening protections for individuals with pre-existing conditions and enabling insurers to opt out of “essential health benefits” such as maternity care, mental health and substance abuse treatment and emergency services.

During a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, the White House legislative affairs director, Marc Short, said there was no set timetable for a new replacement bill but said he was optimistic that Republicans from different wings of the party were finally speaking to each other.

“Last night, when we had members of the Freedom Caucus and the Tuesday Group and the RSC in the same room talking through the same issues,” said Short, who is close to Pence and once led Freedom Partners, a key cog in the billionaire Koch brothers’ network, “we feel like that is progress.”

Mark Meadows, the chair of the Freedom Caucus, still claimed there was a path to a bill passing this week, before Congress goes on its Easter recess, telling reporters: “I am still optimistic that everybody is working in good faith and hopefully it will happen this week.” However, he noted: “It’s important to set realistic expectations that passing a bill between now and Friday is still a Herculean task.”

Most other members wrote off the chances of any progress on healthcare reform in the near future. Chris Collins said healthcare was “in trouble” and added: “I don’t really think two weeks at home is going to change anything.”

And even the ever-sunny Meadows was willing to concede that things were not looking ideal.

“Whenever you get close to a deal, negotiations have [three] phases: it’s called fatal, near-fatal, and definitely fatal,” Meadows said with a smile. “We’re in the fatal to near-fatal mode. It’s not definitely fatal for at least another 48 hours.”

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