House GOP Tax-Writers Air Concerns Over Health Bill Failure

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By Kaustuv Basu and Colleen Murphy

Some House Ways and Means Committee Republicans, unhappy with the way the committee handled the process leading up to the failed health care bill, are asking for more of a voice in developing a tax reform measure.

The conference-wide frustrations about the health care debacle have spilled over into the House tax-writing committee, several people who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Bloomberg BNA. The discord in the committee comes as Republicans search for answers after Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) couldn't muster enough votes for an Affordable Care Act replacement plan.

While Ryan and the White House have said tax reform is next, there remains uncertainty about what the Trump administration tax plan is and whether his administration has any interest in finding common elements with the House GOP tax plan. Earlier in the week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the White House would be leading the tax overhaul effort.

Tax Reform Worries

Republican aides familiar with the situation said lawmakers across the House felt that the health care bill—which was pulled from the floor March 24—wasn’t sufficiently vetted and leadership rammed it through instead of trying to build public support.

House leadership must take more care to educate members, drum up support within the party and with outside groups and make sure the White House and Senate are amenable to its ideas—or risk a repeat if tax reform is similarly rushed and done in a vacuum. Otherwise, House members won’t want to “walk the plank,” voting on a bill that could fail in the Senate, one aide said.

A tax reform bill should be released ahead of time to ensure that members and the public have time to review it and poke holes—and then lawmakers can improve the bill from there, the aide said.

The aides said that at least one Republican member talked about “a failure of leadership” in a Ways and Means meeting on March 28 and that the health care bill ended with being shaped “outside the committee of jurisdiction.”

‘A Difficult Job.’

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA that emotions are raw. “There’s a lot of anger and division in the conference this week and we’re no different. Our committee delivered far-reaching health care reform on a tight time table and continued to make improvements sought by committee members, the Tuesday Group and the Freedom Caucus,” Brady said.

“There’s also an element of confusion about the current situation among members this week that’s adding more to it. This is natural when major bills fail. I have the smartest, most thoughtful members on this committee, we’re talking and we’re committed to asserting our jurisdiction,” Brady said.

Ways and Means member Tom Rice (R-S.C.) said Brady did all he could when it came to the health care bill. “I think that any bill that is as complex and multifaceted, there is a lot of interest that has to be weighed,” Rice said. “It is obviously a difficult job. We brought it out of committee and the chairman did a wonderful job with that,” Rice said. “The chairman went as far as he could looking for avenues to make sure that interests were balanced and we came out with a workable bill.”

The House health care bill was introduced March 6, three weeks before leadership would try to hold an ill-fated floor vote. Two different manager’s amendments to the bill came out the week before the scheduled March 24 vote, with the second coming late March 23. Republican leaders held dozens of meetings and conferences about the bill in the months after the election.

A Deliberative Process

When asked about whether the committee will hold a hearing on the tax reform bill, David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), a member of Ways and Means and the House Freedom Caucus, said the value of a hearing shouldn't be overestimated “compared to one-on-one meetings and small group conversations and technical stuff.”

“I think many of us have learned that if we are in the committee of jurisdiction, we have a real responsibility to be touching everyone with the concepts, the mechanics and the complications,” he said.

House leadership decided not to hold a hearing on the health care bill in the days leading up to the planned vote, citing years’ of hearings held on the Affordable Care Act and its impact. The House blueprint for tax reform, which included ideas to overhaul health care, was released publicly in June 2016.

Rep. James B. Renacci (R-Ohio) is among Ways and Means Republicans who have repeatedly asked for a hearing to discuss the GOP blueprint, including a controversial import tax provision. Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), another Ways and Means member, is advocating a similar approach.

Reed said the attempt to pass a health care bill helped teach him that the sooner more details of a plan are made public, the better the final product, because lawmakers can take input into account. Reed wasn’t speaking on behalf of the committee and wasn’t commenting on its current climate.

“I’m definitely of the school of thought, me personally, that we need to get more of our ideas out there in black and white,” Reed said. “I understand the counter argument that it’s a death by a thousand cuts, but at the end of the day, when you’re leading, the best way to lead is to get out there and stand with your ideas—not to sell them or merchandize them, but just to promote them and get American people on our side.”

Time to Talk

Brady held a Ways and Means meeting March 29 to let committee members air their feelings and has been open to hearing their opinions throughout the process, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), a committee member, told Bloomberg BNA, calling Brady a “steady hand in a storm.”

Kelly said members weren’t angry but did spend time talking in the meeting about what went wrong with the health care effort—he compared it to a sports team reviewing game films.

“You look at game films when you win, and when you lose you say, ‘Why did we lose,’ and you look at the film and the film pretty much tells it,” he said.

There isn’t one reason why the health care bill was pulled, he said. Some lawmakers have said the process moved too quickly; others have said it was too top-down and others had questions on how they could vote on a bill without an updated score from the Congressional Budget Office, he said.

“It was a combination. I don’t think it was any one thing, I think it was too many things when it came time to actually say ‘this is where I am,’” he said.

Too Much Freedom

Another area of frustration is how much clout the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about three dozen extremely conservative members, exerted over the health care bill.

Some Republicans in the House are frustrated that much of the last-minute health negotiations revolved around the hard-line group, the aides said. Members of the caucus weren’t negotiating in good faith and kept upping their demands once it was clear leadership was lacking the votes needed to pass the bill, the aides said.

“The approach after we had gone through the committee process seemed to be if it’s not OK with Mark Meadows, it won’t be in the bill,” said a second aide, referring to the chairman of the Freedom Caucus who asked for repeated changes to the health care bill.

The second manager’s amendment, released March 23, kept the Affordable Care Act’s Medicare surtax in place to appease moderates, and also gave states the ability to decide what elements needed to be included in insurance plans, known as essential health benefits—a bargaining chip for the Freedom Caucus. The caucus ended up being like “a mouse who got a cookie and asked for more,” the first aide said.

The Freedom Caucus disagrees with that assessment. The group was focused on improving the bill so it would bring down premiums, a spokeswoman for the caucus said.

“At the end of the day, unfortunately, the bill was pushed through under a flawed process with an artificial deadline. We remain confident that Republicans can unite behind repeal and replacement that brings down costs and provides more choice for American families. But we need to take the time to do this right,” she said in a March 29 statement to Bloomberg BNA.

Fast Track?

This week, there has been increasing talk among House Republicans about trying to bring moderate Democrats on board to support a tax plan.

The idea of using reconciliation, a fast-track budget process that would allow Republicans to overcome some procedural hurdles in the Senate and pass the bill without Democratic help, is also being questioned.

Using reconciliation again for a tax overhaul could also lead to the same fractures as the original health care push. Instead, leadership could start trying to bring in Democrats on a tax reform bill, and if that doesn’t work, then turn to a reconciliation bill, aides said.

Democratic leaders such as Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) remain interested but wary.

“I think we will have a better indication of that if they try to use reconciliation again as a tool,” Crowley said. If that’s the case, it means they are trying to isolate Democrats in the Senate, he said.

Crowley said he was all for simplification of the code and promoting growth in the U.S.

“The question is whether it is real or are they trying to use it as window dressing,” a Democratic aide said. “Because if it’s tax reform under reconciliation, you will be hard-pressed to find Democrats that can be for that. If you are going to be bipartisan, there is no need to have strict votes on what you can and cannot do.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Kaustuv Basu in Washington at kbasu@bna.com and Colleen Murphy in Washington at cmurphy@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Meg Shreve at mshreve@bna.com

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