By Billy House, Anna Edney and Arit John
House Republicans thought they were writing a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. Instead, on Thursday, they found themselves running a traveling circus.
Following reports that a major chunk of their health-care legislation was being held for House GOP review in a secret room somewhere in the Capitol complex, Democrats and Republicans who hadn’t been invited started the hunt. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, was first on the scene of the supposed secret location.
“It’s the secret office of the secret bill,” Paul told a gaggle of reporters. After being denied entry by a security guard and staff aide, he quickly turned the moment into an impromptu press conference about legislation transparency.
“I suspect public pressure will make them release it,” he said.
Except, as it turned out, the bill wasn’t there. House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady was in the room, but the Texas Republican said the bill wasn’t.
The audience gathered outside — including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland — was skeptical, so in they went to inspect. Out they came about 30 seconds afterward.
“No bill here. We cannot find the bill,” Hoyer said.
One Republican lawmaker and a committee aide had said Wednesday that House Republicans would be allowed to review the overhaul plan — but only in a dedicated reading room, and they wouldn’t be given copies to take with them. Republican leaders are trying to avoid a repeat of what happened last time. When an outdated draft leaked last week, it was quickly panned by conservatives.
The sought-after draft bill is the part of the Republican health care effort being written by the Energy and Commerce Committee, with the Ways and Means panel putting together another chunk. Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon insisted in a statement that it was “false” to contend that the committee was “doing anything other than the regular process” of refining the bill to make it ready for committee debate.
Energy and Commerce Committee Democrat Paul Tonko of New York said he had walked into the room minutes earlier, and staffers there said, “Sir?”
“I said, ‘Well, I’m looking to read the bill, is this where I read the bill?’” Tonko said. “They said, ‘You have the wrong room.’”
“I said, ‘So, where is the room?’ They said, ‘We don’t know that, sir.’”
Tonko said the Energy and Commerce committee’s top Democrat, Frank Pallone of New Jersey, had announced the room number at a subcommittee meeting.
“They must’ve removed it, put it somewhere else,” said Pallone, who headed to Walden’s office after being referred there by Brady’s staff. He didn’t get anywhere there, either.
“I just want to read the bill,” complained Tonko, saying he’ll keep searching, but can’t keep at it all day because he has meetings to attend. Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, added, “We’re on a treasure hunt, I guess.”
Paul said in a Twitter posting that he thought the reason House Republicans were keeping the bill secret “is that it’s Obamacare lite” instead of the full repeal sought by many conservatives.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California told reporters that Republicans are “hiding” the bill because they “know how the American people will react.”
Meanwhile, members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus were happy to let everyone look at their proposal, posting a link to their full text on Twitter.
House Speaker Paul Ryan told fellow Republicans during a private meeting Thursday that the Ways and Means panel and the Energy and Commerce Committee will start debate next week on the plan, according to several Republicans.
Republicans are “working very closely with the Trump administration” on the proposal, Ryan told reporters later at his weekly media briefing.