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Week In Politics: House Intel Committee, GOP Health Care Bill

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I'm Audie Cornish in Washington where Republicans were not able to rally enough of their own members to vote for a replacement to the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare.

Joining me in the studio to talk about this and everything else and what is arguably the most consequential leak of the Trump administration so far, Kimberly Atkins, the chief Washington reporter and columnist at the Boston Herald. Welcome, Kimberly.

KIMBERLY ATKINS: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: And Guy Benson, the political editor of Townhall.com, welcome to the studio.

GUY BENSON: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: OK, and to your Twitter feeds because Kimberly yours just has like an emoticon in a shrugging motion (laughter) in terms of what you make of what happened. And, Guy, yours says, bill flawed - process turned even worse. So, Kimberly, let me start with you because what just happened here?

ATKINS: I mean, that's essentially what it is. We had House Speaker Ryan saying essentially this is what it's like to rule when you have the majority. So if this is what it's like when the majority is in power, it bodes pretty badly for the new Trump administration.

A key campaign promise couldn't get off the ground. And this is the same House that voted 60-some odd times to repeal Obamacare during the Obama administration when there was really a symbolic vote, and there was no - nothing to be done after that. But once they had the task of really doing something about Obamacare, they couldn't come up with enough consensus to make it happen.

CORNISH: Now, Guy Benson, I remember during the inauguration period, Paul Ryan was speaking rapturously about unified government. I had never heard the phrase so lovingly deployed (laughter). But what did you see in how this went down?

BENSON: Well, the Republicans came to voters in 2010, and they said you don't like Obamacare. It's not a good policy. You need to elect us to win. And the Republicans won the House. And they said, it's not enough. We also need the Senate. And voters said, OK, here's the Senate. And they said, well, we still need that President who will sign repeal. And then Donald Trump was elected.

And here we are today - unified government, seven years of promises, three national elections won - and you had Paul Ryan of all people saying that Obamacare will be the law of the land for the foreseeable future. That is a striking - I'm sure that was a very difficult sentence for him to say out loud.

But I think that it seems to be true because a lot of my fellow conservatives are saying, well, let's start over. And that's an appealing-sounding thing. But step one is, OK, start over. Step three is repeal and replace. But what is step two? Because we just had a real...

CORNISH: But you had a lot of time to think about this, right?

BENSON: Seven years.

CORNISH: I think I'm a little surprised in the news today to hear that people saying, well, we're done. Let's move on. I mean, did you see that coming even if it failed that they would just say, well, let's kind of take on other things - infrastructure...

BENSON: Well, I don't - there's a few points on that. I don't think that that's what Paul Ryan believes. I don't think that's what rank and file Republicans believe in the House or in the Senate. I do wonder if that's what President Trump believes.

It seems like he's been very frustrated by the process and wants to move on to other priorities, but there are two problems with that. First, the current law is still collapsing under its own weight and hurting a lot of people. And secondly, the other priorities for this president, especially tax reform, they're not going to get any easier now that this thing went down.

CORNISH: I want to let Kimberly jump in, in part, because we know that it's - while the talking point has been that it's collapsing, number one, we'll see - right? - if it's about to stand. And it is still working for many parts of the country.

Kimberly, what's your assessment here of, like, how they move on to the rest of the agenda and has this been - has - is there going to be real ramifications for how this went down?

ATKINS: Well, I think it does look - I think the president wants to move on because he's a guy who wants to cut deals and get victories. And he's not liking, I'm sure, the fact that this was a major defeat. He wants to change the subject as quickly as possible.

Well, what I think is happening to Republicans right now is that they are dealing with the difficulty between a campaign promise of repealing and placing Obamacare and the reality as told by the Congressional Budget Office and others that say, yes, there are problems with Obamacare, but this plan won't fix them.

And the more Americans heard about this plan, the less popular it became up to the point where, this week, a poll indicated that only 17 percent of Americans were behind it. And so Republicans had a really tough time going to vote in favor of something that their own constituents were, you know, losing support for amid reports that millions would lose their health care and costs would still go up...

CORNISH: Guy, it looks like you want to jump in.

BENSON: Well, including - the opposition included a lot of conservatives. So you had the mainstream Republican Party in Congress fighting the Democrats, which were unified - they were totally unified against this - but also a lot of their own coalition from the center right, particularly the hard right, saying, no, this is not going to fix a lot of the very real problems with Obamacare. We don't think that it's going to make it better, and then all of this mess is going to be on us.

CORNISH: Can I ask a little more about that because you had Nancy Pelosi, you know, kind of arms crossed yesterday smiling into the camera saying rookie mistake, like, picking a date vote without having the support.

And lots of people have looked at the House Freedom Caucus, the hard line conservatives, that have been talking with the White House about this and saying, they've been saying no for so long, they don't know how to say yes. What's your assessment as you talk to other conservatives about this?

BENSON: I think there's some merit to that. I think there are some people who don't want to take yes for an answer. But I would caution a few things. There are really smart health care wonks on the right who were deeply critical of this bill saying that it really was fundamentally flawed from a policy perspective.

And it wasn't just the Freedom Caucus that was the problem. To me, when it came across my Twitter feed a few hours ago that Barbara Comstock from Northern Virginia, a center right moderate-ish member, was going to vote no, that was the death knell.

CORNISH: I see you nodding, Kimberly, you guys agree on this particular (laughter) point.

ATKINS: I think on that point it does. And I think it indicates that this is going to be, perhaps, tougher than the president thought to deal with his own party in Congress. We're seeing a lot of the same problems that happened under Speaker Boehner when you had that discord that really made it difficult for Republicans to govern even when they had power.

CORNISH: You know, I want to move on to another topic that I think, like, in any other week would've been big news, which is, like, confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee.

BENSON: Oh, right.

CORNISH: Let's talk about that. Went for multiple days but at this point, you have the leader of the Senate Democrats, Chuck Schumer, calling for a filibuster of Neil Gorsuch. And a lot of people had said, Kimberly, like, they didn't want to, you know, use all their ammunition or powder or whatever the Washington phrases are on, like, the first nominee in case there was, for some reason, some other opening on the Supreme Court. What do you make of this move from Schumer?

ATKINS: Look, I think Democrats right now realize that this is a move that's probably going to have to be made sooner or later, so why not do it now and unify their support among their members to push back against Donald Trump?

This is a nominee that they don't like. Yes, it won't change the court. A conservative will be replacing a conservative in the late Antonin Scalia. But he's - but at this point, Donald Trump will likely get at least one more pick. And they're going to have to filibuster either now or later and force that nuclear option.

CORNISH: Guy Benson, quick reminder that people will be hearing the phrase nuclear option many times over the next couple of weeks if this becomes an issue because Senate Republicans will have to decide, OK, do we change the rules because we don't want obstruction?

BENSON: Yes. And I think that the precedent has been set by Harry Reid, the previous Democratic leader, that this is something that can be done and has been done.

CORNISH: Right. He changed the rules in 2013.

BENSON: He did to benefit President Obama's nominees. I would point out that President Obama and President Clinton each got two non-filibustered Supreme Court picks in their first terms. And I think Republicans are prepared to follow the Reid rule, the Reid precedent if Democrats filibuster either Neil Gorsuch, who is eminently qualified, or whomever might come next potentially as early as this summer according to certain reports and rumors.

CORNISH: Guy Benson is the political editor of Townhall.com. Thank you for coming in.

BENSON: Appreciate it.

CORNISH: And Kimberly Atkins, chief Washington reporter and columnist at the Boston Herald, thanks so much.

ATKINS: Happy to join you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUN MIYAKE SONG, "LILLIES OF THE VALLEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.