PALATKA, Fla. — Inside a government building here, far-right Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) scolded his party’s leaders for rolling out an “ill-advised” health-care bill and blamed House Speaker Paul D. Ryan for the ensuing debacle.
The next evening on a college campus nestled in the Rocky Mountains, moderate Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) held the House Freedom Caucus — to which Yoho belongs — culpable for the legislation’s defeat.
In both places, Republican voters also pointed fingers — at President Trump, Ryan, their members of Congress, or all of them.
Fewer than 100 days after Republicans assumed complete control of Washington, their botched attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and broader struggles to cooperate have stoked widespread distrust and despair inside the party. The friction is evident at town hall meetings across the country during the current congressional recess.
One lifelong Republican attending Coffman’s town hall in Colorado exclaimed that he was “shocked” by the congressman’s support for the health-care bill, which both Trump and Ryan backed. At Yoho’s event, an attendee pressed the congressman on his role in the Freedom Caucus.
The open warfare threatens the president and the GOP agenda, but is also dampening enthusiasm with Republican voters who can no longer blame Democrats or divided government for the dysfunction.
“I think it’s just tough working with our conference,” Coffman said in an interview, referring to the fact that House Republicans find it almost impossible to agree.
The frustration is visible in both purple areas such as Coffman’s district, which will factor heavily into the battle for Congress in 2018; and ruby-red regions, such as Yoho’s seat, which voted strongly for Trump and could be crucial in 2020. It is present in districts represented by members who supported the bill like Coffman, as well as those who opposed it like Yoho.
Bob White, a Republican who attended Yoho’s town hall here Tuesday, raised a worrisome question for GOP lawmakers on the ballot next year.
“If there was another election I’d still vote for Ted Yoho,” he said in an interview the next day. But a few moments later, White abruptly raised a different possibility:
“Or maybe I would just skip over his name.”
White asked Yoho about his place in the small but powerful group of hard-line conservatives to which he belongs — the House Freedom Caucus. The group has been a thorn in the side of House leaders since many of its members were elected in the 2010 tea-party wave, promising to slash their way to smaller government.
“How big of a stick do you carry with the Freedom Caucus? Is there any influence there?” asked White, 74, who voted for Yoho and Trump.
“Yeah, I think we yield a pretty big stick,” Yoho boasted, giving his own spin — intentionally or not — to the often-used phrase about quiet power than includes “carry” a big stick.
Many in the group refused to support the American Health Care Act (AHCA) — crafted by Ryan (R-Wis.) and his leadership lieutenants — because it didn’t go far enough to repeal the law known as Obamacare and wouldn’t, they argued, bring down insurance costs sufficiently.
Yoho, 62, a veterinarian who once mounted an unsuccessful run against John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) for speaker, argued that the Freedom Caucus received disproportionate blame for the bill’s failure and pointed to resistance from GOP “moderates.”
White, a retired truck driver and volunteer teacher, said in an interview that he wants Obamacare repealed “beyond a shadow of a doubt.” But he seemed less sure the Freedom Caucus could make that happen.
“The question for me is what clout he had within the Freedom Caucus and did he see any light at the end of the tunnel?” he said, adding, “Because I don’t remember the Freedom Caucus being on the ballot.”
In this part of Florida, there was strong support for Trump, who defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in the district to the south and west of Jacksonville by 16 percentage points, post-
election analyses show.
After his town hall, Yoho told reporters that it was ultimately Ryan’s fault that Republicans weren’t able to repeal the ACA before leaving for the recess. “It’s a function of leadership,” he said, before specifically naming the speaker.
In the audience at the town hall, some Republican voters seemed to blame the speaker too.
“Uhhhhh,” responded Mark Fisher, 67, who said he voted for Yoho and Trump, when asked whether he thought Ryan was doing a good job. He deferred to his wife, Joanne, 62.
“I know he’s a good person and everything. . . . I don’t know,” she said.
Yoho was far less critical of Trump than of Ryan, saying he thinks the president was “misled” on health care by House GOP leaders. But Trump spent weeks pushing the measure, holding photo-ops and meeting with its GOP architects. After the health-care bill collapsed, Trump lashed out against the Freedom Caucus for its failure.
Ryan’s team does not believe that there is a widespread movement against him among GOP members. Some other members of the Freedom Caucus have not blamed Ryan the way Yoho did.
Coffman, 62, is one of just 23 House Republicans who represent districts won by Clinton in 2016. His suburban Denver seat is a diverse mix of Democrats, Republicans and independents. That demographic split drove Coffman last summer to run an ad promising to stand up to Trump when they disagree.
Many members of the moderate Tuesday Group to which Coffman belongs opposed the House GOP plan. But Coffman said he supported it because every major policy move has to start somewhere. He was quick to blame the Freedom Caucus for the bill’s failure.
“I think the Freedom Caucus was completely unrealistic in terms of their expectations,” Coffman said. “If you’re going to be a legislator, you’ve got to legislate and compromise is not a pejorative.”
Most of the roughly 200 people who showed up at the University of Colorado Anschutz Campus in Aurora on Wednesday were Democrats who angrily demanded that Coffman make good on his pledge to confront Trump.
But they weren’t alone. Steven Haas, 68, stood up to say he was a lifelong Republican upset that Coffman and his fellow Republicans failed to listen when voters made clear that their plan was unsound.
“I’m sorry to say I was shocked that you declared your intention to vote for so-called Trumpcare,” Haas said. “That’s not the way we do things in Colorado. The ACA is the law of the land now.”
Haas later said he usually votes for Republicans but doesn’t plan to back Coffman next year, because he doesn’t trust him to live up to his moderate reputation in the face of Trump’s agenda.
“When he gets to Washington, he votes 96 percent of the time with the far-right wing,” Haas said. “That’s not who we are here. Republicans like me don’t like it.”
In Florida, Yoho faced a different kind of anger — some people in his district were upset that he didn’t back Trump in the health-care fight. Yoho explained that the majority of the calls his office received opposed the measure.
As they have at many GOP town halls this year, Democrats made their presence felt in Florida. Although they disagree with Yoho on most everything, some are pleased that he didn’t back the GOP proposal — albeit not for the same reasons.
“Different ends — same result,” said Joy Pitts, a local activist with Indivisible, a national organization formed to oppose Trump’s agenda.
Colorado opted to expand Medicaid under the ACA while Florida did not. The House bill would have rolled back Medicaid expansion, causing many Democrats and Republicans to worry about those who obtained coverage as a result of it.
Coffman said he has only heard rumors of revived negotiations on the health-care bill — but he worried that Ryan and Trump might try to resurrect the legislation by making it more palatable to conservatives.
Coffman is in a tough spot — forced to decide between supporting Trump’s agenda, much of which appeals to the conservative element of his base, and following through on his own promise to independents, centrist Republicans and Democrats that he would stand up for their needs.
At the town hall, he was steadily attacked by Democrats and independents who wanted to know when he’d stand up to Trump.
“When I disagree with him,” Coffman insisted after an hour of pointed questions. “When I disagree with him, I will.”
That kind of answer wasn’t good enough for people like David Leach, a software engineer and registered Democrat who said he had only supported a Republican once in his life when he voted last year for Coffman.
“You position yourself as someone who would vote your conscience and work in a bipartisan manner in Congress,” Leach said. “I voted for you because I thought you could be a leader in that regard and I’m not seeing anything.”
Pam Cirbo, a GOP volunteer from Littleton, Colo., said she’s generally happy with Trump and is growing tired of people pushing Coffman to resist. Cirbo said she didn’t love the GOP health plan but was frustrated that GOP leaders didn’t try harder to negotiate a compromise.
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” Cirbo said. “Maybe the timeline was a little shorter than it should have been.”
Snell reported from Aurora, Colo.