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Republicans follow playbook they attacked in original Obamacare fight

House Speaker Paul Ryan greets guests as he walks to the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 4, 2017. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)
By David Weigel Washington Post

WASHINGTON – As they raced toward Thursday’s vote on the American Health Care Act, House Republicans found themselves fending off ghosts. Seven years of attacks on the Affordable Care Act, seven years of insisting that the law had been jammed through without scrutiny, kept coming back to haunt them.

First, they struggled to answer questions about the need to vote before the Congressional Budget Office had estimated the costs of an amended AHCA.

“I would prefer to have it scored,” said Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., a member of the House Freedom Caucus who was elected in the 2010 backlash to Obamacare. “But more than that, I want it to pass.”

Next, they brushed off questions about whether they’d read the bill, which would impose a dramatic change on one-sixth of America’s economy and was polished off in a Rules Committee meeting after nightfall on Wednesday.

“Oh, gosh!” said Rep. Thomas Garrett, R-Va., another Freedom Caucus member, elected in 2016, in an interview with MSNBC. “Let’s put it this way. People in my office have read all the parts of the bill. I don’t think any individual has read the whole bill. That’s why we have staff.”

Again and again, Republicans found themselves defending a process that, at its worst, put the passage of the ACA through a funhouse mirror. A party that once demanded CBO scores for each vote on the ACA declared that the CBO simply wasn’t trustworthy. Members of Congress who pledged to vote on bills only after days of public debate learned to love expediency.

Process questions, blown to the side this week, were pivotal in the long fight over the ACA. Republicans, facing a deeper vote deficit than Democrats face now, used then-President Barack Obama’s campaign trail promises of transparency as a baseline.

“Congress and the White House have focused their public efforts on platitudes and news conferences, while the substance and the details have remained behind closed doors,” wrote Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., then the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, in a July 2009 op-ed for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Those members of Congress who voted for this bill already in their committees did so without knowing what the legislation costs.”

In 2009 and 2010, Republicans and well-heeled outside groups quickly made congressional process infamous. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a reluctant supporter of the ACA, won a carve-out to increase Nebraska’s Medicaid funding. He found himself booed out of an Omaha pizza parlor.

The brickbats flew even as Democrats dutifully presented each version of their law to the CBO, and got it scored. Republicans repeatedly accused then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., of springing the bill before voters could know what it cost.

“Shall I give you, again, (Ryan’s) letter to me at the time, or to the CBO?” asked an exasperated Pelosi during a Tuesday roundtable with Washington Post reporters. Democrats, she said, never even considered rushing a vote before a CBO score, “because we’d never do that to our members.”

After the ACA passed, Republicans did not let up. Then-Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, closed his party’s debate on the bill with a lengthy floor speech, leading a call-and-response as he accused Democrats of flouting public debate.

“Can you say it was done openly?” he asked. “With transparency and accountability? Without backroom deals and struck behind closed doors, hidden from the people? Hell no, you can’t!”

To Democrats’ surprise, Republicans hammered process issues through the election, promising to never again legislate like the Democrats had.

“We will ensure that bills are debated and discussed in the public square by publishing the text online for at least three days before coming up for a vote in the House of Representatives,” they wrote in their Pledge to America, a pre-election manifesto. “No more hiding legislative language from the minority party, opponents, and the public.”

That pledge was no longer functional during the AHCA debate. The final language put up for a vote on Thursday had been inked less than 16 hours before the vote.

As Republicans contemplated how to defend their vote, they repeatedly grabbed their old talking points about the ACA. In interviews and floor speeches, they frequently prefaced their cases for the new bill by insisting that Democrats had broken the old process.

“It’s important to remember, we went from a 2,600-page bill down to a bill under 200 pages, even with the amendments,” said Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, during a Wednesday roundtable with reporters. “I also want to remind us that the corrections added 7,000 or 8,000 pages.”

Many Republicans also resurrected a favorite quote from the ACA fight – Pelosi, in a March 2010 speech to county legislators, ran through the benefits of the law and insisted that “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” At the time, the bill’s text had been public for weeks, along with a CBO score. That did not dispel the legend.

“Unlike with Obamacare, when Nancy Pelosi said we would have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it, the American Health Care Act is posted online for all to read,” wrote Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., a reliable vote for the GOP’s leadership, in a March op-ed in his rural district.

“You know why this was so difficult to get this done?” asked freshman Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., in a Thursday interview with CNN. “Because we didn’t go out there and do this in the way the 1/8Democrats 3/8 did. We did it in a transparent and truthful way, and that made the process a lot more arduous but in the end.”

Democrats, who had often struggled to defend the passage of the ACA, watched all of this dumbfounded. Republicans had elucidated what a bad process would be, then plunged into it, and came out the other side with legislation that satisfied their base.

“Republicans are more comfortable using power when they have it,” said Adam Green, whose Progressive Change Campaign Committee beseeched Democrats to expand the ACA during the reconciliation process. Progressives, he said, needed not just to elect Democrats who favored more social welfare, but who had “the willingness to use their power to push that agenda into law when in the majority.”