GOP leaders delay ObamaCare vote in face of conservative discontent

Lacking the votes, House Republican leaders on Wednesday postponed action on a bill that would have changed President Obama’s healthcare law.

The move was a blow to Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who took the lead in pushing for the legislation, and represents yet another example of House GOP leaders struggling to convince the conservative wing of their conference to back controversial legislation. 

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The House was expected to debate the bill and consider amendments Wednesday afternoon. But moments after the House approved the rule to bring the measure to the floor, lawmakers were notified there would be no more votes the rest of the day.

House GOP aides said they would look to bring the bill back to the floor in May, though it remains to be seen how it can pass without the support of many conservatives and most, if not all, Democrats. The White House has vowed to veto the bill, in addition.

A Republican leadership source said Wednesday they were making progress in winning support for the bill, but were not there “yet.”

While leaders on Wednesday morning refused to predict whether they would prevail, Cantor said leaders were “forging ahead.”

The bill, crafted by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), would shift ObamaCare money to boost high-risk insurance pools. Along party lines, the Energy and Commerce Committee approved the legislation last week.

But it hit major turbulence when the right-leaning Club for Growth strongly opposed the measure. Other conservative groups, including Americans for Tax Reform, endorsed Pitts’s bill, but it wasn’t enough to overcome skepticism among conservative lawmakers.

Cantor took a far more active role on the Pitts bill than did Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). The Virginia Republican publicly defended the legislation, which is consistent with his effort to put a kinder face on Republican policies. 

In a last-ditch effort to sway members, Cantor met Wednesday afternoon with members of the Republican Study Committee (RSC).

RSC lawmakers in the room say they were divided. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) estimated half of the 40-50 RSC members in attendance were “no” votes on the Pitts bill. GOP leaders could only afford about 16 defections if all Democrats rejected it and all members voted.

After the meeting ended, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told The Hill that he asked a lot of questions, but didn’t get answers.

RSC Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), who chairs the Financial Services Committee, declined to say whether he would vote “yes” about an hour before the bill was yanked from the floor.

Others were firm votes against, including former RSC chairman Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Senate hopeful Rep. Paul Broun (Ga.). 

Pitts on Wednesday acknowledged “there are some people who are still hesitant because they don’t want to fix 

ObamaCare.”

There was also frustration among House conservatives that the first 2013 floor vote on the administration’s healthcare reform law sought modifications instead of a full repeal.

After the 2012 election, Boehner and Cantor tried to move their conference to recognize that repealing ObamaCare was a political impossibility. Boehner said the Affordable Care Act is “the law of the land,” while Cantor pushed for repealing aspects of the 2009 law.

Yet, freshman Republican members want a vote on eradicating the entire law even if the bill is dead on arrival in the Democratic-led Senate.

“The guys who have been up here the last two years, we can go home and say, ‘Listen, we voted 36 different times to repeal or replace ObamaCare.’ Tell me what the new guys are supposed to say?” second-term Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) said Wednesday at a forum sponsored by the Heritage Foundation. 

Passing an ObamaCare fix bill without Democratic support would be extremely difficult because many House Republicans fear primaries more than general elections. Meanwhile, some GOP lawmakers are considering Senate bids and want to protect their right flanks.

In late December, Boehner and his lieutenants retreated from a floor vote on a tax bill amid a rebellion from their members. Days later, they stumbled on Hurricane Sandy relief.

In recent months, House Republicans had regrouped by passing a budget resolution and staring down President Obama on sequestration. 

But the failure to get the votes on the Pitts bill has once again exposed the rift within the GOP Conference.

The Pitts legislation would gut a preventive health fund created by ObamaCare, one that Republicans have called a “slush fund.” It would use $3 billion from that fund to extend the life of the Pre-existing Conditions Insurance Plan (PCIP), also created by the healthcare law. Another $1 billion from the fund would go toward deficit reduction.

House leaders cast the bill as one that would let Congress terminate the “slush fund,” reduce the deficit and help people by funding the PCIP. Earlier this year, the Obama administration stopped enrollment in the PCIP, a temporary program that was meant to expire at the end of 2013.

The program is temporary because starting in 2014, ObamaCare prohibits insurers from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions.

During debate on the rule, Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) pointed out that the administration stopped enrollment in the program even though just 107,000 people are using it, despite predictions that nearly 400,000 people would be enrolled. Burgess said the administration was potentially blocking thousands of more people from accessing the program before it expires, and said more funding should be directed to the PCIP to help it expand.

“Instead of making sick Americans a priority, the administration is telling them, ‘just give us 10 more months,’ ” Burgess said.

No Republican spoke in opposition to the bill during debate on the rule, though Democrats noted the friction in GOP ranks.

“Given the multiple reports of dissent within the majority, I have to ask, if no one supports this bill, then what are we doing this afternoon?” Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said.

Democrats did not address the question of whether the PCIP should remain funded through the rest of the year, or how that should be done. But the Obama administration’s veto threat acknowledged that the cost of providing the PCIP program to 107,000 people was more expensive than anticipated.

The House approved the rule in a 225-189 vote in which just one Republican voted against it, Rep. Matt Salmon (Ariz.).

— Russell Berman, Elise Viebeck and Bob Cusack contributed.


— Updated at 8:05 p.m.