The measure is part of Cantor’s effort to rebrand the GOP after defeats in the 2012 presidential and Senate elections, but it quickly found resistance among conservative activists.
The Club for Growth led a contingent of right-leaning groups that urged Republican lawmakers to oppose the bill, casting it as a costly boondoggle that would do nothing to dismantle the health-care law.
“Fiscal conservatives should be squarely focused on repealing Obamacare, not strengthening it by supporting the parts that are politically attractive,” Andy Roth, a vice president of Club for Growth, wrote to lawmakers last week. Heritage Action, the political arm of the the conservative Heritage Foundation, joined in the opposition.
No Democrats supported the bill as it was considered by the House Energy and Commerce Committee because the $3 billion tab would be covered by revoking funding from a different piece of the health-care law. That let GOP leaders know they needed to wrangle almost every vote from their side of the aisle to pass the measure. The failure was reminiscent of flops they have experienced since seizing the majority in 2011.
Cantor pulled the bill after trying to push his rank-and-file members to support it during a closed-door huddle on Wednesday. He argued that “helping the sick people” was a worthy conservative cause. “This is the right thing to do,” Cantor said. “We’re trying to find solutions here.”
On numerous occasions during the last Congress, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has tried to muscle legislation through the House with just Republican votes, only to see a couple of dozen conservatives rebel, some fearful of retribution from outside groups that specialize in financing primary challenges in safe GOP districts.
Unlike those previous battles, this one measured the clout not of Boehner but of his lieutenants. Cantor, 49, and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, 48, have often been described as tea party leaders in Congress, part of the younger GOP generation that recruited the rabble-rousing class of 2010 that thrust Republicans into the majority.
Increasingly, however, conservative activists have signaled uneasy relations with the younger leaders. In January, they opposed a relief bill for communities hit by Hurricane Sandy, which Cantor had pushed, and the resulting passage of the measure was a legislative victory but a political embarrassment.
Cantor and McCarthy (Calif.), who wrote the book “Young Guns” together, supported the bill, but only 49 Republicans voted yes, while 179 opposed the measure. It passed because 192 Democrats backed it. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who co-authored the book, also voted no.