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How the Freedom Caucus undermines Republicans

WASHINGTON • Governing is not easy. We learnt this the hard way, as Speaker Paul Ryan stood before House Republicans last week and told us he was withdrawing the Obamacare replacement plan. Despite campaign promises to repeal and replace by the President and most Republicans, the votes were not there to pass the American Health Care Act. And just like that, the effort was dead.

As soon as the news broke, the finger-pointing began. Accusations against President Donald Trump and Mr Ryan flew around Capitol Hill, and headlines proclaimed this a major blow to the Republican agenda. My phones began ringing off the hook. I received e-mails from supporters and friends dismayed that our most basic promise had already been broken.

But from my perspective, claiming the party was in disarray is untrue. A vast majority was ready to vote "yes" but one faction made it impossible: the House Freedom Caucus.

Interesting name for a group of about three dozen that refuses to let the will of the people advance on the House floor, a group Mr Trump himself scolded on Twitter on Thursday for undermining the Republican agenda and our party as a whole.

Perhaps I'm joining the finger-pointing here by blaming the caucus. But I'm fed up. Americans need to understand what happened.

Earlier in the week, I was summoned to the White House to share my concerns about the healthcare legislation and meet Mr Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence. At this meeting, I found the President willing to listen to the concerns of House members. He made every effort to see what, if anything, could be done to resolve differences. I witnessed a Vice-President who deeply understood the dynamics of this Congress and the traps that existed there. You give a concession in one area, and you may lose supporters in another, which certainly became the case.

The sausage-making process of legislating is often ridiculed but it is far preferable to a system where one man dictates his will.

This is why the legislation collapsed: In exchange for their votes on the replacement plan, the members of the Freedom Caucus wanted reductions in essential health benefits. Mr Trump agreed in good faith. Some more moderate Republican members struggled to accept these changes. Yet even knowing that some "yes" votes had turned to "no", the conference went to bed on Thursday thinking that we would vote the next day.

To our dismay (but not to my surprise), the concessions were not enough to get the Freedom Caucus on board, as usual.

For two days, camera crews crammed the hallway near my office outside the caucus' meeting room as reporters tried to determine whether the members were on board. They were not, and had new demands to share with the news media, such as rescinding regulationsthat include protections for people with pre-existing conditions and allowing young adults to stay on their parents' health plans until the age of 26. The President, and many of us, had promised to protect these two key provisions.

The Freedom Caucus fully understood that its last-minute demands would doom the Bill.

The vote was going to fail.

This is a common tactic by the group. Over the years, the caucus has repeatedly demanded more while refusing to compromise. In 2013, a group of conservatives who later became part of the Freedom Caucus won major concessions on the farm Bill, and then still voted against it. In 2015, the caucus made demands for a free trade Bill that were clearly intended to kill the legislation. Their demands were not met and the Bill passed without their support.

It's what they do: They move the goal posts and, once that happens, they still refuse to play. We are the Charlie Brown party, hoping that, this time, things will be different. But time and again, the Freedom Caucus is Lucy - pulling the ball out from under us, letting us take the fall and smiling to themselves for making a splash.

It's a cheap tactic, not a way to govern, and enough is enough.

In the words of Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican who resigned from the caucus after the healthcare debacle, "sometimes you're going to have to say 'yes'". It is my sincere hope that many in the caucus take his words to heart.

This Bill was our chance to repeal Obamacare and alleviate the burdens of a failing insurance system. Perhaps we will one day agree on a measure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

But for that to happen, our collective actions must be in the interests of the American people - and not just one group.

NYTIMES

  • The writer is a Republican congressman from Illinois and a major in the Air National Guard.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2017, with the headline 'How the Freedom Caucus undermines Republicans'. Print Edition | Subscribe