WASHINGTON — A new push to pass GOP legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act will take months, not days, House Speaker Paul Ryan indicated Wednesday, as the latest talks among Republicans produced no apparent breakthrough.
“We’ve got a couple months at least,” the Wisconsin Republican said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Wednesday.
“We’ve gotten pretty far in coming together,” he said, “but I also think we’re not there yet — because the stakes are so high, and people are just having to get used to” being the governing party.
Ryan broadly defended his stewardship on the issue and what he portrayed as a leadership style of “nudging” his colleagues, not bullying them.
“Leadership can’t be autocratic. I’ve watched that. It doesn’t work,” said Ryan. “I’m not an arm breaker.”
While discussions between Vice President Pence and House Republicans on health care briefly stirred talk of legislative movement this week, Ryan played down the notion of quick action, saying members were “shopping concepts to each other.” Ryan met with Pence at the White House Wednesday evening. The House begins a two-week recess next week.
At a forum Wednesday hosted by the website WisPolitics.com, Ryan said of a health care bill, “We can keep working this for weeks now.”
GOP leaders had expressed far more urgency when they scrambled unsuccessfully for votes last month. In the end, Ryan was unable to generate enough Republican support for the bill to pass it, so he called off a planned March 24 vote.
But in an interview Wednesday with the Journal Sentinel and the Associated Press, Ryan said he had “built cushions into our schedule” to accommodate delays or setbacks.
“The president wanted us to get it going ... we wanted to meet that aggressive time table. But we’ve always had more time, and we’re now using that,” he said.
The health care defeat was a major political blow to Ryan, and polls suggest it has left his public standing in shaky condition.
In a national survey by Quinnipiac University released Monday, the speaker was viewed favorably by just 28% of voters, and unfavorably by 52%. Only 21% approved of the job Republicans are doing in Congress, while 70% disapproved.
In an earlier poll by Quinnipiac, the GOP health care bill Ryan was pushing only drew 17% support.
“I’ve long believed we have to do very difficult and challenging things to get this country back on track, and the process of doing this may not be popular at the moment,” Ryan said in the interview. “It’s very disruptive. It’s high stakes, and of course it’s controversial … I am unconcerned about popularity and polling when I’m focused on advancing our principles and policies that we believe are necessary to get the country back on track.”
With difficult issues such as tax reform looming, Ryan said one takeaway from the failure to find consensus among different GOP factions on health care is that, “We have to talk things out much, much, much more thoroughly.”
He said it was his job to get GOP conservatives and moderates to understand each other’s districts and points of view and “make some concessions to one another in order to govern.” The bill collapsed in part because moderate Republicans could not accept changes to the bill that were being offered by the White House to lure the support of members of the House Freedom Caucus, the most conservative GOP faction in the House.
Pence has been convening talks among the Republican factions looking for agreement on how to revise and resurrect the bill, but those talks never resulted in a new draft.
But Ryan rejected the idea that there is no fundamental consensus within the GOP on how to replace Obamacare. And he sought to put a positive spin on the defeat, saying that bringing the debate to the cusp of a floor vote clarified where things stood within the Republican caucus.
“My style has always been to let things go. Let you fail a couple of times so you can learn from those experiences … We had to bring it to a head to find out just where we stood … to get people to take positions, to then understand what their positions were, so we could work through those problems and that’s where we are right now.”
Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said he’d still like revised legislation to come up for a vote before the House goes into a two-week recess. But he also said if the timeline is extended, there could be time for an entirely new proposal to be formed.
“Obviously if we’re talking about months, not days, then perhaps it opens up a whole lot of other things to discuss that might make the final negotiations a lot easier than where we’ve been,” Meadows told reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. “See, right now, because of the time crunch, I think we’re using the GOP plan as the backdrop and trying to modify that. If we’re hearing that it’s going to be weeks or months then you don’t have to make the assumption that it has to be that backdrop; it allows you to look at other options across the board.”
Ryan appears to be willing to spend the time that might take.
The speaker suggested the arm-twisting approach used by some past leaders was not an effective style or one that he is comfortable with.
“It’s not the Tom DeLay system around here,” he said referring to the former House majority leader from Texas, whose forceful leadership style earned him the nickname The Hammer. “I believe in persuading instead of intimidating.”
Ryan said: “What we have to do is find consensus and use sort of a bottom-up organic process. That’s going to be a little sloppier, it’s going to take a little more time, we’re going to stub our toe from time to time, but I think at the end of the day it makes us a stronger conference.”
Contributing: Eliza Collins