Speaker Paul Ryan had none of his Eagle Scout-like optimism.
At a closed-door conference meeting with House Republicans hours after Sen. John McCain scuttled perhaps the last best hope of repealing Obamacare, Ryan read an excerpt from “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a song about sailors drowning in a 1975 shipwreck. He likened the tune to what he deemed the Senate’s tragic failure to repeal Obamacare.
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House Republicans — the infamously fractious group that drove out their former speaker — are now the most functional part of government, the speaker told his members.
GOP House members lit into their Senate counterparts Friday, fingering them — and only them — for the death of a seven-year campaign promise. After taking a politically poisonous vote on a controversial repeal bill, the Senate failed to unite around a substantial policy replacing President Barack Obama’s health care law, leaving House Republicans exposed.
Now House Republicans are heading into a five-week summer recess visibly frustrated by their lack of accomplishments.
“The House did its job… The Senate needs to deliver,” said Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.), on his way into the morning meeting. “We’re all on this plane, and if it crashes, we all go down together.”
Ryan and his leadership team couldn’t do much to console their rank-in-file during the tense huddle. But the speaker’s message was one of survival: House Republicans must keep moving forward, pressing ahead and delivering on tax reform and federal spending.
Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) talked about all the legislation the House had passed, from bills curbing undocumented immigrants to repealing landmark Obama financial regulations and helping veterans.
Members couldn’t help but think, however, that most of those measures are stuck in the Senate.
“The House time and time again has passed strong legislation and the Senate isn’t able to get anything to the finish line,” said Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) a top deputy whip for GOP leaders. “We want to see them get off the dime and get moving. This is a disappointment. It’s a failure for the American people — and this is on the Senate.”
Asked how she would deal with any of the blowback from constituents over for the failure to replace Obamacare, she added: “I’m going to talk about the 270 pieces of legislation we passed and advanced through the House — 226 of which are sitting over in the Senate waiting to be sent to the president’s desk.”
Members coming in and out of conference expressed similar sentiments, seemingly caught between grief, shock and bubbling impatience. All Rep. Joe Barton could manage to say say was, “I am very sad.” His fellow Texas Republican Mike Conaway insisted the Senate “needs to pass something.”
Arch-conservative Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), meanwhile, called for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to step down.
“We need new leadership in the United State Senate,” said Brooks, who is running for an open Alabama Senate seat. “If Mitch McConnell cannot get the job done, then those 52 senators need to get together and try to figure out who amongst them has the leadership capability to get the job done.”
Some also pointed the finger at Trump.
Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican who voted against the House repeal bill, said the GOP’s health effort was doomed from the start because the president “never really laid out core principals and didn’t sell them to the American people.”
“Usually the executive has to provide a plan and go out and sell it… It was never really sold,” he said, arguing that now is the time to turn to bipartisanship.
Some House Republicans denied the push was over. The failed Senate vote was “not a death knell,” said House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). “I’m still optimistic that we will have another motion to proceed, and ultimately put something on the president’s desk.”
Others pressed senators to keep working, though it’s unclear what the next steps will be in the upper chamber.
“It’s a fail; they’ve got to get back at it,” said Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), one of the key negotiators on the health care legislation the House passed in May. “They’ve got to try to find a way.”
Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (Ore.) said GOP leaders were “continuing to look at the options” on health care. He declined to say whether the effort to repeal Obamacare was over after seven years.
“I’m not going to characterize it that way at all,” Walden said, adding that he was willing to work with Democrats on a number of health care-related issues.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Friday that his members were “very disappointed” by the Senate’s repeal effort. But the California Republican tried to look ahead, saying the House would pass a budget resolution in September that would allow the chamber to advance tax reform.
House Republicans would also press ahead on annual spending bills, McCarthy said. Government funding runs out on Sept. 30, and House GOP leaders have already talked about doing a short-term bill to avoid a shutdown. Congress will also have to take action to raise the debt ceiling.
“This is damaging for the country with the failure of Obamacare,” McCarthy said. “We’re not going to give up on health care. We’re going to have to take a different route based upon the Senate, unless the Senate is able to wake up and realize what they did and come to their senses.”