They more or less kept it behind closed doors for a couple of weeks, but Republicans are no longer holding back their frustration that they couldn't repeal Obamacare. Now, the blame game has started. Here's President Trump, blaming the Senate majority leader, on Twitter, in front of his 35 million followers, not once but twice in the past 24 hours:
Senator Mitch McConnell said I had "excessive expectations," but I don't think so. After 7 years of hearing Repeal & Replace, why not done?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 9, 2017
Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn't get it done. Must Repeal & Replace ObamaCare!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 10, 2017
Let's back up. After Republicans' attempt to undo some of the Affordable Care Act fell one vote short in July, Trump got out in front by not-so-subtly threatening Republicans writ large with the label “total quitters” and hammering them at every public opportunity.
If Republicans don't Repeal and Replace the disastrous ObamaCare, the repercussions will be far greater than any of them understand!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 24, 2017
Unless the Republican Senators are total quitters, Repeal & Replace is not dead! Demand another vote before voting on any other bill!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2017
“Get them to have the guts to vote to repeal and replace Obamacare,” Trump told a West Virginia crowd last week.
The normally reserved Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) kept his head down. But on Monday, while speaking to constituents in Kentucky, he basically said it's not fair to blame Congress. It's the president's “excessive expectations” that are out of whack:
“Our new president, of course, has not been in this line of work before. And I think he had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process. So part of the reason I think people feel we’re underperforming is because too many artificial deadlines — unrelated to the reality of the complexity of legislating — may not have been fully understood.”
In other words: Don't judge if you don't know what's going on, Mr. President.
By Wednesday morning, McConnell's marks had infiltrated the White House. Trump aide Dan Scavino fired back that McConnell was just making excuses for his poor leadership.
— Dan Scavino Jr. (@DanScavino) August 9, 2017
Trump allies in the media piled on. “They are phony baloney,” said Fox Business host Lou Dobbs on Tuesday night. “Ditch Mitch.”
Same from Fox News host Sean Hannity.
— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) August 9, 2017
Then, a couple of hours later, the president himself joined in the McConnell bashing. And he hasn't stopped since.
As that was catching fire, another parallel blame game was forming. On Tuesday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), suggested on talk radio that Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) brain cancer diagnosis may have influenced how the senator voted. McCain, along with Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) voted against the bill in a late-night series of votes. He later said he didn't appreciate how Republicans rushed through the legislation.
“Again, I'm not going to speak for John McCain. You know, he has a brain tumor right now, that vote occurred at 1:30 in the morning — some of that might have factored in,” Johnson told Chicago's “Morning Answer.”
The host, caught off guard, asked Johnson directly if he thought the tumor affected McCain's judgment, and Johnson backed off some: “I don't know exactly what — we really thought — and again I don't want speak for any senator. I really thought John was going to vote yes to send that to conference at 10:30 at night. By about 1, 1:30, he voted no. So you have talk to John in terms of what was on his mind.”
Damage, done, though. McCain's office fired back in a statement:
“It is bizarre and deeply unfortunate that Senator Johnson would question the judgment of a colleague and friend. Senator McCain has been very open and clear about the reasons for his vote.”
Johnson followed up in an interview on CNN Thursday morning, saying he was actually trying to defend McCain.
“Listen, I was trying to defend his position and truthfully just express my sympathy for his health condition,” Johnson said. “So, again, I reached out to John, I'm hoping the talk to him today. I just have the greatest respect for John McCain.”
What's going on with all this finger pointing?
For one, it's pretty clear Republicans blame themselves for failing to repeal Obamacare, not, as some of them say publicly, Democrats.
Two: There's a split in the party about who was least helpful in trying to corral 50 ideologically diverse Republican senators to support an unpopular piece of legislation.
From the beginning, Senate GOP aides privately said that Trump wasn't helping much. He gave them little to no direction on what kind of legislation he wanted and absolutely no comfort that he'd have their backs once they passed something. Trump celebrated House Republicans' controversial health-care bill with them in the Rose Garden, then called it “mean.”
But from the White House's perspective, Republicans in Congress had seven long years to come up with a plan to repeal Obamacare. When Barack Obama was in the Oval Office, Congress managed to pass a repeal bill. How could Republicans finally have total control of Washington and not send one to Trump's desk?
Obamacare repeal, for now, is probably shelved. But a war over who is to blame for that fact could drag down Republicans as they try to tackle the next major thing on their to-do list, overhauling the tax code.
Restructuring the tax code poses as many challenges for Republicans as health care, if not more.
Timing is one big one. Their initial plan to get it done this fall is extremely optimistic. When Congress returns in September, it also has to lift the debt ceiling and pass a budget — all things it has been unable to do in the past without Democratic help. And the closer it gets to the 2018 midterm elections, the less likely some vulnerable Republicans are to take tough votes for the sake of the party.
Even if they dodge a debt ceiling fight and shutdown, as The Washington Post's Damian Paletta and Kelsey Snell report, Republicans haven't yet figured out how they want to overhaul the tax code. The Trump White House has released a one-page handout, and that's about it.
Senate Republican leaders also say they're likely to follow the same procedural trick as they did trying to pass health care to avoid a Democratic filibuster, which means they'll need at least 50 of 52 Republican votes. In a vacuum, that would be a major challenge, because restructuring the tax code covers just as wide of an ideological spectrum as health care. (Should the tax cuts last a year? A decade? Forever? Is it okay if they raise the deficit? And on and on.)
In the real world, where Republicans at the highest level of the party are openly blaming each other for their recent failures, getting everyone on the same page could be close to impossible.