by Tara Golshan · March 9, 2017
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
At around 9 pm Wednesday, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) greeted a group of about 25 students from Saudi Arabia, who found themselves on a late-night school tour of the US Capitol. They wondered what the Congress member was still doing there.
Upton tried explaining that he was there for a “committee mark-up” on a health care bill, which could possibly go as late at 1 am, which would be longer than any mark-up process he had seen in his former role chairing the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“That’s really late,” one of the students said.
“Yes,” Upton said. “I won’t sleep the whole night.”
It was an understatement.
Members of Energy and Commerce, and of the House Ways and Means Committee, convened Wednesday morning for the first formal debate on the American Health Care Act, the plan put forth by congressional Republicans to repeal and replace Obamacare. None of them would get much sleep.
Both mark-ups turned into marathons. One ended a couple hours before dawn. The other stretched well into the next workday. Along the way, members debated the health benefits of tanning beds and the comparative merits of taxing ice cream — or the sun. The speaker of the house made a cameo. An octogenarian Republican dozed, frequently. There was candy, and energy drinks, and a lot of Democratic showboating.
The final result was a show of force from a Republican majority that, by all other indications, appears fractured by the health plan — an early, albeit fragile, indication that the GOP’s strategy to rush the bill through Congress just might work.
Outside the walls of the House buildings on Capitol Hill, the bill appears to be on shaky ground, already panned by multiple factions of the Republican party. It has already lost the support of key lobbies like the American Medical Association and the AARP. Republican Sens. Lisa Collins, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton have all voiced concerns — enough to sink it in the Senate.
But on Wednesday, the House committees showed no sign of GOP dissent, only discipline. Republicans in both rooms held united against Democratic amendments. In Ways and Means, they voted in lock-step to advance the bill.
Partisan politics kept committees up all night
At 3 am on Thursday, Rep. Linda Sanchez, a Democrat from California, offered an amendment in the Ways and Means Committee meeting, one she seemed sure would attract Republican votes. “The subject of my amendment speaks for itself,” she said.
There was a loophole in the bill, Sanchez explained, that allows registered sex offenders to use money from their tax-advantaged Health Savings Accounts to pay for erectile dysfunction medication. She proposed the committee close it.
For once, in nearly 16 hours of deliberations, committee chair Kevin Brady’s call for debate on the proposed amendment went unanswered. It seemed Brady, a Texas Republican, was going to move to a vote — and that Republicans would be on board. Then he paused.
“Clearly you feel strongly about this—” Brady began.
“I feel very strongly about this,” Sanchez responded.
“So if this amendment passes, you will be voting for the underlying bill?” Brady asked. Sanchez backtracked. She still had problems with the bill as a whole.
“So even though you feel so strongly about it, you will be voting against the bill in about an hour?” Brady pressed, throwing her intentions into question. “Another political gimmick,” he declared, advising Republicans to vote against the amendment.
The exchange made clear what Democrats had begun to realize over the course of the hearing: Republicans weren’t going to vote for any of their amendments, just as they weren’t going to vote for the Republican bill.
Democrats did everything they could to make the process as tedious as possible.
In Energy and Commerce, Chair Rep. Greg Walden (R-TX) had only spoken for six seconds before he was interrupted by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the committee’s ranking Democrat. Pallone wanted to extend his colleagues opening statements from three minutes to five minutes.
Five minutes later, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) also interrupted Walden — asking that his colleague, Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), be allowed to speak for three minutes instead of the one minute the Republicans wanted to allow. But Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) objected:
LUJAN: I request that at the very least [Rep. Castor] be recognized for 3 minutes…
SHIMKUS: I object.
LUJAN: Are you serious?
SHIMKUS: I am serious.
LUJAN: This is ridiculous.
The procedural tug-of-war continued from morning to night to early morning.
“Maybe they think we’ll get tired and run out of gas and throw in the towel,” said Tony Cardenas (D-CA), a member of the committee wearing a red-white-and-blue “healthcare for all” pin.
In Energy and Commerce, Democrats forced the committee clerk to read the 120-page bill out loud in its entirety.
In Ways and Means, Democrats proposed the same amendment Brady had proposed to the Affordable Care Act in 2009: that every member of the House voting on the health care bill issue an official statement indicating he or she had read the legislation in its entirety. They passed out the same amendment with Brady’s name crossed out and Crowley’s penciled in.
The minority party employed other stall tactics. They called four “motions to adjourn” on the floor of the House, which forced Republicans to leave the committee room and vote to stay in session. They employed obscure procedural moves to debate individual words for amendments. They forced Energy and Commerce staff to read 120 pages of legislative text out loud.
At around 9 pm, Democrats in that committee introduced the amendment to rename the American Health Care Act the “Republican Pay More for Less Care Act.” At about 10:30 pm, the committee was still debating the motion — and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) couldn’t believe it.
“It’s just inconceivable that we’ve been here 12 hours,” Blackburn said in an interview outside the committee room, “and the best the Democrats can do is to offer an amendment to change the name of the bill.”
Democrats accused Republican leadership of trying to exhaust them, so they could prevent the committee process from extending for several days — and, presumably, more stall tactics.
“Sometimes they use it as a punitive thing: ‘Okay, you want to ask all of these questions? You want to keep talking? We’ll talk till you’re finished, and however long it takes that’s how long it takes,’” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). “But we think this is too important just to be pushed through. We had no idea what was in the bill until just two days ago.”
A long day stretches overnight
At 7:39 pm, Ways and Means members had only finished debating one page of their portion of the bill. Republicans had barely spoken. They knew it would be a long night.
Rep. Sam Johnson’s staffer whispered to a colleague. “Did you see the six pack of 5-Hour Energy in the bag?”
The Republicans on the committee had long grown restless, slinking back to a room behind the dais, peeking out only when their names were called in a roll call vote.
At 9:20 pm, House Speaker Paul Ryan paid a visit. Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-NY, was talking about the dangers tanning salons (the plan repeals Obamacare’s tax on tanning salons). It seemed no one was paying attention to Crowley’s comments. Staffers turned their attention to Ryan, and the once-whispered mutterings between aides became more audible chatter.
Brady, briefly breaking from his chair post, stood with Ryan behind the dais, all smiles. The two laughed pointing out people in the room, whispering. Ten minutes later, Ryan left. Brady returned to his post and called the room back into order.
The committee room was freezing cold. As the night wore on, staffers and journalists wrapped themselves in scarves and winter coats.
By 3 am, Republican staffers were passing around candy.
At various points, 86-year-old Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX) dozed.
Members left the room for long periods and came back to find they didn’t know what they were voting on.
Around 3:30 am, rumors spread among GOP staff that Democrats were offering their last amendment. A woman ran past all the sitting young Republican staffers, patting them on the back and whispering “we’re almost there.”
The final committee vote was 23-16, straight party lines, to advance the bill. Brady’s gavel struck down at 4:15 am, ending the Ways and Means hearing after nearly 18 hours of debate. Applause broke out.
Shortly before 6 am, Cotton, the senator from Arkansas who has expressed reservations about the bill, sent a Twitter shot toward the House.
1. House health-care bill can’t pass Senate w/o major changes. To my friends in House: pause, start over. Get it right, don’t get it fast.
— Tom Cotton (@TomCottonAR) March 9, 2017
Ways and Means members had already gone home.
The Energy and Commerce hearing was still going strong.