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Rand Paul, a copy machine and a ‘secret’ Obamacare bill

Somewhere, in an undisclosed room in the U.S. Capitol, there is legislation that will ostensibly repeal and replace Obamacare. On Thursday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) went on a high-profile, somewhat quixotic crusade to find it.

The whole circus was a manifestation of the fact that Republicans trying to make good on a campaign promise to get rid of Obamacare are caught between reality (undoing a major social program on which 20 million people rely isn't easy) and ideology (influential conservative groups are demanding that lawmakers fully repeal Obamacare, or else).

Then Paul got involved and took things to a whole other level.

The story of Rand Paul and the copy machine starts with a seemingly benign meeting. Paul got word that the members of a House Energy and Commerce Committee were gathering to talk about the legislation, as committee members with jurisdiction over health care sometimes do.

Paul marched over from the Senate to the House side — a good quarter-mile walk, depending on where you start — to bang on the door and demand that his colleagues in the House show him the “secret” draft Obamacare bill.

Never one to miss a posturing opportunity, Paul sent nearly a dozen tweets on his march over, ensuring that cameras and tweeting reporters greeted him when he showed up. He even brought his own copy machine — you know, just in case.

A staffer came out to tell Paul that the bill was neither there, nor could he see it. And Paul turned to face the cameras.

It's true that a proposal to change/reform/replace Obamacare is indeed in a somewhat secret room. Bloomberg reported Wednesday that the draft is in a special viewing room only available to the 50+ lawmakers (and their staff members) who sit on the House Energy and Commerce committee, one of the committees with jurisdiction over health-care reform. “Nobody will be given copies to take with them,” Bloomberg reported.

The secrecy appears to be an attempt to prevent what happened last week, when another draft of the Obamacare bill leaked and blew up in House Republicans' faces. Conservatives said they couldn't support that version because it didn't go far enough in fully abolishing Obamacare.

(Legislation is generally not made public until it is officially debated in committee, but legislation like this often leaks to lobbyists and reporters.)

Now, influential groups such as FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity and Heritage Action for America plan to pressure lawmakers to support a full repeal or face the wrath of tea party conservatives, The Post's David Weigel and Sean Sullivan report.

That's a potentially scary prospect for Republican lawmakers. Recall that passionate town halls in 2009 in opposition to the health-care law helped launch the tea party.

The reverse is happening today, as mostly liberal constituents fearful of losing the health-care law show up to normally sleepy Republican town halls.

Republican town halls across the country hit by protests (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

All this political tumult is one reason House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) promised in an interview on NBC's “Today” show this week that “we’re not hatching some bill in a backroom and plopping it on the American people’s front door.”

Which brings us to Thursday's saga.

Democrats saw an opening to poke at Republicans — for the secrecy of the bill, for their bluster to fully repeal it and indecision about how, just for fun — and poked hard.

From Weigel, who witnessed the whole circus on Capitol Hill:

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.
After Paul left, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer arrived at [the conference room], trailed by a Facebook Live-streaming staffer and some reporters. Hoyer and press members managed to enter the room — which was empty.
“Well, Mr. Lincoln, I can’t find the bill,” said Hoyer, turning to a bust of the 16th president. “I know, Mr. Lincoln, that you are as upset with your party as I am.”

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, issued a statement to defend the committee's bill-writing process from one of his own colleagues: “Reports that the Energy and Commerce Committee is doing anything other the regular process of keeping its members up to speed on latest developments in its jurisdictions are false. We are continuing to work on drafting and refining legislative language to provide relief from a failing law.”

It was a weird day. But the weirdness underscores that if we've learned one thing about health care, it's that it gets people into town halls and out to voting booths. And apparently senators to cross Capitol Hill to the House side with copy machines.