GOP angst grows over leadership fumbles

The failure of House Republican leaders to pass a healthcare measure this week exposes a GOP weakness going into the high-profile debt-ceiling talks this summer.

A number of high-ranking Republican lawmakers close to the whip operation told The Hill, on the condition of anonymity, that there has been a “disconnect” with leadership lately. 

Unless rectified, that disconnect could hamper Republican efforts to go toe-to-toe with President Obama on raising the debt ceiling. Obama has steadfastly refused to negotiate on the issue while Republicans in the House and Senate are demanding cuts to accompany any debt-limit hike.

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Several members of the GOP deputy whip team said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) alerted Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) last week that there were not enough votes to pass a bill aimed at revamping a portion of ObamaCare. 

Regardless, sources said Cantor — who has been pushing for a kinder, gentler GOP national image — opted to move the measure forward. It passed the Rules Committee Tuesday night after being cleared by the Energy and Commerce panel on a party-line vote last week. 

But lacking the votes, GOP leaders on Wednesday had to pull the bill, which would have transferred funds from the Affordable Care Act to pay for an extension of the high-risk federal insurance pool for individuals with pre-existing conditions. 

Cantor’s office maintains that the measure could come up again in May, though GOP lawmakers are very skeptical that it will get a vote in the House this year. Democrats strongly oppose the measure, which was introduced by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and attracted a White House veto threat earlier this week.

One veteran Republican lawmaker said of the decision to hold a vote on the controversial measure: “They’ve lost their minds.” 

Cantor’s office on Thursday disputed any split with McCarthy. 

Cantor Deputy Chief of Staff Doug Heye said, “We work hand-in-glove with the whip and all leadership offices to ensure that we’re all moving forward, together, in the same direction. That was true with the Helping Sick Americans Now Act and is true of all measures brought to the floor. In addition to the monthly and quarterly legislative memos, at every conference meeting the majority leader reviews the agenda for the coming weeks and months so that every member of the Republican conference is aware and engaged as we move forward.”

McCarthy spokeswoman Erica Elliott said that leadership will continue discussing how to move the bill forward.

“Leaders engage in ongoing conversations throughout the legislative process to determine, evaluate and refine our strategic approach. This was and will continue to be the case during our consideration of the Helping Sick Americans Now Act,” Elliott said.Conservative critics of the Pitts bill note that it moved very quickly from introduction to committee to the floor. The legislation was first unveiled on April 15.

When House GOP leaders schedule floor votes on legislation and then are forced to retreat, the party loses political leverage. That happened when Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) couldn’t pass his “Plan B” bill during the so-called fiscal cliff negotiations late last year.

Boehner’s fingerprints aren’t on the GOP ObamaCare measure, which some critics on the right have dubbed “CantorCare.”

Part of the problem behind the failure to get the votes is that Cantor is thinking nationally while many conservatives in gerrymandered districts are thinking locally. 

Furthermore, rank-and-file Republicans are still grumbling that GOP leaders called for a vote on the Senate’s Violence Against Women Act, which was opposed by 138 House Republicans.

On Thursday, some House Republicans were scratching their heads over the handling of the Pitts bill.

“[Cantor and Boehner] didn’t listen to the whip who [has] said they didn’t have the votes for this. They brought it up, then they whipped it, then they lost. This is like the fourth time they’ve done this where they underestimate when the whip’s said, ‘We don’t have the votes for this,’ ” a senior GOP lawmaker told The Hill. 

On Thursday morning, McCarthy met with his deputy whip team and kicked staffers out of the room to have “an open, frank conversation about the way forward,” according to one of the participants. 

“The one real frustrating thing is that the impending [debt-limit debate] that we’re about to have — there’s no plan for that. There’s no meeting, no discussions ...” the Republican lawmaker said. 

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) passed a measure out of his panel on a party-line vote Wednesday to prioritize government payments once the debt ceiling is reached next month.

The bill would allow the Treasury Department to continue issuing debt above and beyond the limit to pay the nation’s bondholders.

The measure likely will have the votes to pass the House, giving the GOP some leverage. However, Republicans in the lower chamber want their leaders to have a clear-cut strategy to avoid the missteps of the fiscal cliff negotiations. 

Boehner has promised his conference that he will not engage in any more backroom negotiations with the president, but how the debt-limit talks will end up is anyone’s guess.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a deputy whip, said pulling the Pitts bill would not harm the GOP in the debt talks.

“I personally think it will be part of a different dynamic. It’s not likely to be a stand-alone vote in my view. If it is, it most certainly will not pass,” Cole said.

The former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee conceded that he did not know the leadership’s strategy on the debt limit.

Obama launched his bipartisan charm offensive last month, but it has not yet yielded tangible results. The chances of a grand bargain on taxes and entitlements in the coming months are less than 50-50. That political reality will likely lead to a smaller deal, which in some ways is harder to reach. 

John Feehery, a former aide to ex-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and a columnist for The Hill, defended the House GOP leadership:  “When the followers don’t follow the leader, it weakens the team, and there might be reasons for it ... at some point in time they’ve got to cut the leadership some slack and give them an opportunity to make their case and to see how it plays out.”


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