03/27/2017 18:17 EDT | Updated 03/28/2018 01:12 EDT

Finger-pointing on Hill as GOP assesses health bill loss

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans on Monday pointed fingers and assigned blame after their epic failure on health care and a weekend digesting the outcome.

The divisions, coming on top of House Republicans' inability to deliver on a priority they all share — repealing and replacing "Obamacare" — raised serious questions about whether they will be able to achieve their other legislative goals for the year or even pass must-do spending legislation in time to avert a government shutdown at midnight April 28.

The hard-right House Freedom Caucus, which withheld a bloc of votes from the White House-backed health care legislation, came in for most of the criticism from fellow lawmakers.

"Clearly moving forward, we're going to have to look at where a governing majority comes from. That's going to require some answers from the Freedom Caucus," said GOP Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania.

Like a number of other more moderate-leaning Republicans, Costello said he would have voted "no" on the bill in the end, partly because it kept moving to the right as House leaders and the White House made concessions to the Freedom Caucus without ever succeeding in locking in their support. President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan decided to pull the bill from the House floor on Friday after it became clear it was bound to fail.

"They're going to have to know when it's time to get to the 'yes,'" Costello said.

Freedom Caucus members bridled at the criticism, insisting they had done Trump and fellow Republicans a favour by blocking a piece of legislation that polled poorly and embraced the basic structures of Obamacare without significantly reducing premiums.

The Freedom Caucus spokeswoman, Alyssa Farah, said over Twitter that blaming the group ignored the opposition coming from moderate-leaning Republicans. And Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a Freedom Caucus leader, accused GOP leaders of a rushed and secretive process in promoting their legislation, which would have eliminated the Obamacare mandate for people to carry insurance or face fines, and shrunk a Medicaid expansion, but relied on tax credits similar to those in President Barack Obama's law to help consumers purchase insurance.

"They rolled it out after it was hidden away. When they rolled it out, they said it's a binary choice, take it or leave it," Jordan said on MSNBC. "Normally when you have hearings on a piece of legislation that impacts this much of our overall economy, you would bring in some witnesses and hear from some witnesses about what's going to happen if this legislation actually becomes law. We had none of that."

Trump took on the caucus late Monday on Twitter, writing: "The Republican House Freedom Caucus was able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. After so many bad years they were ready for a win!"

The divisions extended to whether Republicans should immediately try again to make good on seven years of promises to repeal and replace the health care law or cut their losses for now and move on to overhauling the tax code, a priority Trump seems more excited about. Senate Republicans, who had hoped to act next on the health legislation despite divisions of their own, voiced displeasure with the failure by their House counterparts.

"It's disappointing. We've got to fulfil our promises," said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. "Hopefully the temperatures have gone down just a little bit and we can get to an outcome. We don't have the option of inaction. We own it and we've got to fix it."

House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady said he's encouraging the Senate to advance its "repeal and replacement plans" on health care. But the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said there would not be another attempt to advance Republican-only health care legislation. "I don't think we can give up," he said, "but it's clear it needs to be done on a bipartisan basis."

For Republicans who want to show voters they can govern after gaining control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, the outcome on health care suggests the opposite. The one bright spot for the GOP is Trump's nomination of conservative appeals court Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, which will be considered on the Senate floor the week of April 3.

The disunity comes as Congress is fast approaching a deadline to pass government-wide spending legislation or face a shutdown. Given that lawmakers have a two-week recess in the middle of April, there is little time to negotiate an agreement. In the past such spending deadlines have been occasions for brinkmanship, including in 2013 when conservatives forced a 16-day partial government shutdown in a failed attempt to defund Obamacare.

The tentative game plan this time around to wrap up more than $1 trillion in unfinished spending bills is to draft a bipartisan omnibus measure that would fund the government through Sept. 30. Its outlines remain fuzzy and subject to change according to the whims of GOP leaders, but the working thesis is to craft legislation that could pass by a bipartisan vote without a filibuster by Senate Democrats.

Conservatives, however, may be disappointed that they wouldn't score many wins in such legislation, even though Republicans control the entire government. They may insist on more money to build Trump's border wall or even press to "defund" Planned Parenthood. And Democrats could abandon the effort if Republicans press too hard for the border wall or lard in too much extra money for the Pentagon, raising the spectre of a shutdown showdown not far away.


Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor, Alan Fram and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.