Inside a nondescript Capitol meeting room, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee were discussing the details of a possible Affordable Care Act replacement bill. Outside, there was an unwelcome visitor: Sen. Rand Paul (R).
The Kentucky senator, who has pledged to oppose any bill that does not fully do away with the ACA and its insurance subsidies, learned late Thursday morning that committee members were talking about the bill in H157, a room on the Capitol’s first floor.
“I have been told that the House Obamacare bill is under lock and key, in a secure location, and not available for me or the public to view,” he tweeted.
According to House Republican staff, this wasn’t the whole story. The bill, which has been workshopped and previewed in private meeting, is not ready yet. But at noon, a dozen reporters were already staking out the room — which was being guarded by Capitol Police officers — Paul and several members of his staff strolled up, toting a copier just in case the senator got his hands on the bill. Over the objections of the officers, reporters and photographers followed Paul into the tight space in front of the door to the room.
“I’d like a copy of the bill,” Paul said to a House staff member near the door. Told that he could not get a copy — the bill is still being drafted, though Republicans are being made aware of what it will likely contain — Paul turned and faced the press.
Rand Paul talking to press after being told he can't get a public copy of the GOP ACA replacement pic.twitter.com/ugvSpF5zOD
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) March 2, 2017
“We’re here today because I’d like to read the Obamacare bill,” said Paul, as more reporters sprinted to join the scrum. “If you’d recall, when Obamacare was passed in 2009 and 2010, Nancy Pelosi said you’ll know what’s in it after you pass it. The Republican Party shouldn’t act in the same way.”
Since 2010, Republicans like Paul have described the passage of the ACA as an opaque and secret-laden process, one that Democrats rightly paid a price for. For seven years, they’ve summed up the law’s passage with a quote that then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave to the National Association of Counties: “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of controversy.”
Since then Republicans have promised that their repeal of the ACA would avoid the tumult of the 2009-2010 process by which it was passed. “We’re not hatching some bill in a backroom and plopping it on the American people’s front door,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said on NBC’s “Today” this week.
It’s common for complex legislation to be worked over in private by committees ahead of a public markup, with the text of the bill available to the public two days in advance. But Paul, who has introduced his own ACA replacement bill with the backing of the House Freedom Caucus, used his visit to H157 to brand the meeting as a violation of the Republican Party’s promises.
“In my state, in Kentucky, it’s illegal to do this,” he said, gesturing to the door he wasn’t allowed to walk through. “This is being presented as if it were a national secret, as if this were a plot to invade another country.”
As more reporters craned their necks and pointed their recorders, Paul denounced the aspects of the GOP replacement bill that he’d learned from media sources and conservative House members.
“What we’re hearing rumors of is that parts of Obamacare are left in place,” he said. “For example, the ‘Cadillac tax’ will be left in place but renamed. The individual mandate will be left in place, and instead of paying the government a penalty, you’ll be paying an insurance penalty. These, to me, are Democrat ideas.”
For a few more minutes, Paul attempted to carry out a news conference in a space designed for anything but. Capitol Police moved around the group of reporters and called out when a staffer trying to get around the crowd stumbled over a tripod. Paul wrapped it up only when Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), a member of the committee, was unable to enter the room.
“We will put a formal protest in now,” said Paul. “This is the beginning of this. I expect public pressure will get them to release this.”
In a statement released after Paul left, Ryan’s office pointed out that the Kentucky senator was protesting not a bill, but a place where legislators were trying to meet. The bill was being hammered out, with a markup scheduled for the coming week. “The Energy and Commerce Committee members are working on their portion of the health-care repeal and replace plan,” said Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong. “We would refer you to the committee for more.”
But that statement did not close down the circus. While Paul was holding court near H157, Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) led another group of reporters on a sort of scavenger hunt to the Energy and Commerce committee’s main hearing room and through a Capitol basement. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer arrived at H157 shortly after Paul, telling a bust of Abraham Lincoln that he couldn’t find the bill, as a staffer filmed the encounter for Facebook. For an afternoon, Democrats and conservatives were feeling the same, befuddled mood.
“We asked for the score and all that. We were told we’ll have that by the time it gets to the floor,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a Paul ally in the House. “We need to have that now! You can’t have a discussion about this proposal independent from costs. It’s ridiculous. That’s kind of like, just ‘vote for it to see what’s in it.'”
Mike DeBonis and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.