Speaking privately to his donors, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy squarely blamed Republican losses in last year’s midterm elections on the GOP push to roll back health insurance protections for people with preexisting conditions — and in turn blamed his party’s right flank.
McCarthy’s comments, made in a Feb. 6 conference call from which The Washington Post obtained partial recordings, represent a vindication of Democratic efforts to elevate health care as an issue in last year’s campaign. And in singling out the House Freedom Caucus, the remarks threaten to rekindle internal resentments inside the House Republican Conference.
Looking toward the 2020 elections, McCarthy (R-Calif.) noted that several Freedom Caucus members lost and said that he was focused on recruiting candidates who would “find a solution at the end of the day” — noting that he was already wooing doctors, Navy SEALs and a former CIA agent to run.
“You want to aim before you fire,” he said. “Let’s find the very best people that can do this job that knows the commitment of what they’re doing to make sure that they’re going to find a solution at the end of the day.”
Matt Sparks, a spokesman for McCarthy, said in response to the recordings that the GOP leader “has been clear-eyed on what went wrong last cycle and no one is more committed to doing everything necessary to win back the House and execute an agenda that offers every American limitless potential to get ahead.”
McCarthy’s remarks about the Freedom Caucus threaten to renew an old rift between the top House Republican and the Freedom Caucus — one that dates to 2015, when the group blocked McCarthy from succeeding John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) as House speaker. McCarthy has since moved aggressively to win over conservatives by pursuing a harder line on immigration, spending and other key policy issues.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the Freedom Caucus chairman, said McCarthy’s remarks were “very troublesome” after a reporter described them. “I hoped the us-versus-them mentality of the past was something that indeed was in the past,” he said.
Elsewhere on the call, McCarthy offered a selective account of the 2017 health-care battles on Capitol Hill, where Republicans in the House toiled for months to craft an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, narrowly passing a bill in May before watching the Senate abandon the effort three months later.
“When we couldn’t pass the repeal of Obamacare the first way through, an amendment came because the Freedom Caucus wouldn’t vote for” the original House bill, McCarthy said. “That amendment put [the] preexisting condition campaign against us, and so even people who are running for the very first time got attacked on that. And that was the defining issue and the most important issue in the race.”
McCarthy’s account accurately describes the dynamics of passing the American Health Care Act, the Republican ACA alternative, in 2017: After an initial version of the bill was withdrawn due to opposition from both the Freedom Caucus and GOP moderates, Meadows and Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) crafted an amendment that would give states the ability to waive protections for people with preexisting conditions.
But it sidesteps the Republican leadership’s role in backing what became known as the MacArthur Amendment and ultimately forcing a vote on a bill that faced uncertain prospects in the Senate and put scores of GOP lawmakers on the political defensive.
After House passage, McCarthy and dozens of Republicans joined President Trump at a White House celebration.
MacArthur, who captured a district Trump won by six percentage points in 2016, was among the 40 House Republicans who lost their seat to a Democratic challenger last year.
At another point in the call, McCarthy again suggested the health-care issue was decisive: “Republicans carried the economy overwhelmingly. We carried even immigration. We even carried the social issues. But there was one issue we lost overwhelmingly — it was health care by 66 points. Had we lost health care just by 34 points, we’d still be in the majority. We’d have those other 80,000 votes that we needed.”
Among those who lost reelection bids last year were three Freedom Caucus members: Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) lost a primary race in a heavily GOP district to a challenger who in turn lost to a moderate Democrat, while Reps. Rod Blum (R-Iowa) and Dave Brat (R-Va.) both lost to Democratic challengers who highlighted their health-care positions.
“Some of them lost seats that were very safe,” McCarthy said on the call. “But it was kind of the policies that they wouldn’t let go through of why they lost. And I think those seats are better for us to win, but also the quality of the candidate will matter more.”
But many more establishment Republicans, who backed the GOP health care bills despite political warning signs, lost their seats. One donor on the call, bringing up the health-care issue and the GOP’s profound midterm reversal in states Trump won, urged McCarthy to “get off that horse — it ain’t gonna happen,” adding, “If Obamacare’s that bad, it’s going to fail on its own.”
“If you’ll notice,” McCarthy replied, “we haven’t done anything when it comes to repealing Obamacare this time.”