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The embarrassment of the failure of Republicans to deliver on their signature promise for the past seven years is falling, more than on anyone else, on House Speaker Paul Ryan. This is not irrational – after all, Ryan started working on this repeal effort at a time when Donald Trump was still just a reality TV star. And the tick-tock anecdotes out today do not paint a pretty picture of Ryan’s attempts to convince other lawmakers to get on board with the AHCA and his three step plan: “Leaders continued to plead with individual lawmakers to support the measure well into Thursday night, with the House Rules Committee slated to meet early Friday morning to consider the proposed changes. Ryan got down on a knee to plead with Rep. Don Young, an 83-year-old from Alaska who is the longest-serving Republican in Congress and remains undecided.”

There’s no question that Ryan emerges from this health care defeat badly damaged, particularly considering the repeated “I got this” promises to the White House which delayed Trump’s direct involvement. But the fact is that this does not change the reality of the alternatives here: Ryan is the best option the Congress has for Speaker and has the trust of the majority of his conference. There is not some other option standing in the wings. But as I noted on Face the Nation yesterday, it is incumbent upon Ryan and everyone else in leadership to learn the right lessons from this: you cannot pretend as if there are more centrist Democrats than there are Freedom Caucus members, you cannot ignore their objections, and you have to implement a more open and transparent process for the creation of legislation and come to agreements about strategy before you roll things this significant into the light of day. Without them, he would not be Speaker. He needs to be Speaker with them, not against them.

Tim Alberta has a tick tock at Politico. “Donald Trump had heard enough about policy and process. It was Thursday afternoon and members of the House Freedom Caucus were peppering the president with wonkish concerns about the American Health Care Act—the language that would leave Obamacare’s “essential health benefits” in place, the community rating provision that limited what insurers could charge certain patients, and whether the next two steps of Speaker Paul Ryan’s master plan were even feasible—when Trump decided to cut them off.

“Forget about the little s—,” Trump said, according to multiple sources in the room. “Let’s focus on the big picture here.”

“The group of roughly 30 House conservatives, gathered around a mammoth, oval-shaped conference table in the Cabinet Room of the White House, exchanged disapproving looks. Trump wanted to emphasize the political ramifications of the bill’s defeat; specifically, he said, it would derail his first-term agenda and imperil his prospects for reelection in 2020. The lawmakers nodded and said they understood. And yet they were disturbed by his dismissiveness. For many of the members, the “little s—” meant the policy details that could make or break their support for the bill—and have far-reaching implications for their constituents and the country.

“We’re talking about one-fifth of our economy,” a member told me afterward.

“Ultimately, the meeting failed to move any votes. Two Freedom Caucus members—Brian Babin and Ted Poe, both of Texas—told the president that they had switched to yes, but their decisions had already been registered with White House vote-counters prior to sitting down with Trump. (Their colleagues didn’t appreciate the gesture, feeling that Babin and Poe were trying to score points with the president at their expense.) Upon returning to Capitol Hill, the Freedom Caucus gathered in a meeting room inside the Rayburn office building, discussed Trump’s admonitions to them and took another vote. The tally had not changed: Of the group’s roughly three dozen members, two-thirds remained opposed, with only five or six of those saying they were “soft” in that stance.

“The president had been working on many of them individually in recent days, typically with what members described as “colorful” phone calls, littered with exaggerations and foul language and hilariously off-topic anecdotes. In some cases, the pressure worked. Jim Bridenstine, a Freedom Caucus member and longtime problem for the Republican leadership, agreed to back the bill after conversations with Trump and other administration officials. (It wasn’t necessary to remind Bridenstine that he was a leading candidate to become NASA administrator, and would likely hurt his chances by voting against the president.)

“But by and large, Trump’s first attempt to corral the Republican-controlled Congress—and particularly the Freedom Caucus, a rambunctious, ideologically charged collection of GOP legislators who have long refused to fall in line behind the party’s leadership—failed miserably. That failure played a major role in the collapse of the American Health Care Act almost exactly 24 hours after their meeting at the White House, and now, as Trump warned, threatens to paralyze the president’s first-year policy agenda and send Republicans into a damaging cycle of intra-party recrimination.”

And at the center of this, a simple agreement among the three dozen HFC members which held for most of them to the end – as the moderates ran for the hills. “In a conference room in the Rayburn House Office Building, the group met that evening and made a secret pact. No member would commit his vote before consulting with the entire group — not even if Trump himself called to ask for an on-the-spot commitment. The idea, hatched by Freedom Caucus Vice Chairman Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), was to bind them together in negotiations and ensure the White House or House leaders could not peel them off one by one.

“Twenty-eight of the group’s roughly three dozen members took the plunge. Three weeks later, Republican leaders, as many as 25 votes short of passage, were forced to pull their bill from the House floor.

“This is a defining moment for our nation, but it’s also a defining moment for the Freedom Caucus,” said group leader Mark Meadows about a week before the doomed vote was scheduled. “I don’t think there’s a more critical vote for the Freedom Caucus than this.”

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I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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