(Bloomberg) — House Speaker Paul Ryan has used a soft touch to win over rebellious conservatives. But, with his Affordable Care Act health program de-funding bill at stake, he’s delivering a tougher message: It’s time to fall in line.
“This is the closest we will ever get to repealing and replacing Obamacare. The time is here, the time is now, this is the moment,” Ryan said Thursday. “It really comes down to a binary choice.”
The with-us-or-against-us tone is a departure for Ryan, who has up to now trod carefully around the fiercely anti-establishment members who helped oust his predecessor, John Boehner.
Now the 47-year-old speaker has little choice but to take a firmer line, bolstered by President Donald Trump’s tweets, to drum up the votes for the first true make-or-break moment of his speakership. The House Ways and Means Committee voted 23-16 early this morning to approve its portion of the overhaul, which House leaders unveiled this week.
The extent to which Ryan needs to force his party to get on board with an Obamacare replacement measure that has been attacked by a wide range of conservatives will be an early indicator of how much of his ambitious agenda he’ll be able to accomplish this year — including a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code. Turning those big-ticket policy goals into law is the GOP’s best sales pitch for the 2018 midterm elections.
“Everyone wants to have the grassroots, up from the bottom, but ultimately you have to get stuff done,” said John Feehery, who was a spokesman for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and now heads the communications practice at QGA, a public affairs company. “Leadership is all about knowing when you’ve have enough input from the masses and that’s when you lead.”
The urgency to sell this bill to right-leaning groups, industry players and his own members was apparent at Ryan’s weekly press conference Thursday, when he ditched the traditional podium and his jacket for a sleeves-rolled up, town-hall-style presentation. Ryan laid out the limits of what can get through the Senate without a filibuster, and said other conservative priorities for health care, such as selling insurance across state lines, would have to come in future legislation.
Ryan has two main weapons in his arsenal. One is the GOP’s urgency to repeal the Affordable Care Act after more than six years of using it as a rallying cry against President Barack Obama. Any member who votes against the bill supported by leadership will be accused of wanting to keep Obamacare.
The other is Trump himself, and his Twitter megaphone. Pressure from Trump is most effective in the House, where all members are up for re-election in 2018 and more purely Republican districts tend to be passionately pro-Trump.
“In most of our districts he’s an extremely popular president and an extremely talented communicator,” Kentucky Republican Brett Guthrie said in an interview. “He’s very willing to use his political capital to move this forward.”
Ryan said he spoke with Trump twice on Tuesday as reactions to the leadership’s health care bill were rolling in.
“Doing big things is never easy, but we have made a promise, and we’re going to keep that promise,” Ryan said Tuesday, holding up a copy of his draft legislation. “That is exactly what this bill does.”
Jim Jordan said he thinks voters want to see some debate (Photo: Jordan’s office)
Even with support from the White House, Ryan faces early headwinds from within his own conference. An analysis for the Republican Study Committee, a group of about 170 House conservatives, called the tax credits in Ryan’s bill “Republican welfare entitlement.”
The most vocal members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus have said they still support Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s plan, which hews more closely to a 2015 repeal bill approved in the House and Senate.
Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio and a founder of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said members ran on a full repeal of Obamacare and all the related taxes. He said he’s open to negotiating with House leaders, but the current bill doesn’t go far enough.