WASHINGTON ― After years of complaining about the secretive way Democrats drafted the Affordable Care Act, Republicans locked a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare in an undisclosed room for only select members to review, setting off a theatrical search on Thursday that had Democrats wandering Capitol halls and knocking on random doors.
Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans were allowed to review the health care bill ― or at least a portion of the text ― but Democrats were shut out, as were other Republicans. That led Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to ask Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) about the secretive process on the House floor, with Hoyer confidently claiming that committee Republicans were reviewing the bill in Room H-157, which happened to be No. 4 Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ office.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), hearing the room number, decided to cross the dome and try to read the bill himself, but staffers wouldn’t let him in.
“It’s the secret office of the secret bill,” Paul said, with a copy machine in tow. He later called the whole thing “crazy.”
“I think the reason they’re keeping it in secret is it’s Obamacare light,” Paul told reporters. “And conservatives, I can tell you on both sides ... of the House and Senate, are very unhappy that they’re now making the Obamacare proposal classified. It’s under lock and key, and we’re not allowed to have a copy of it. I think that’s crazy.”
At that point, other Democrats began to show up outside of McMorris Rodgers’ office, trying ― and failing ― to get into what was rumored the reading room for the repeal and replace measure.
“I got stopped at the door saying I had the wrong room,” Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) told reporters. “And I said, ‘Well what is the right room?’ And nobody could answer me.”
As reporters began to congregate outside McMorris Rodgers’ office, the Washington Republican’s deputy chief of staff, Nate Hodson, quickly sensed a public relations crisis and opened the room to Democratic congressmen and reporters.
Suddenly, Hoyer showed up and led a group of reporters through McMorris Rodgers’ office in search of the legislation.
“We cannot find the bill,” Hoyer said, in faux shock.
Hoyer then led reporters into the hallway, where he had a conversation with a large bust of Abraham Lincoln.
“Mr. Lincoln, you said public sentiment is everything,” Hoyer said. “But if the public can’t see the bill, they can’t give us their sentiment. That’s not regular order. That’s not democracy.”
Hoyer did not appear to have any actual information that the bill was in McMorris Rodgers’ office ― “I mentioned it was in 157, [McCarthy] didn’t tell me it wasn’t in 157.”
But by this point, Democrats had exposed Republicans for hiding a bill from everyone outside their inner circle and were ready to milk the moment for everything it was worth.
The top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), showed up with committee member Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and began holding court, bashing Republicans for the secrecy.
“The speaker has so many times said ― he was, I guess, on Matt Lauer a couple days ago ― he said this whole process was going to be transparent, there were going to be committee hearings, we’re going to get the bill in advance, and, now, you know, from what we’re hearing, they may go to markup on Wednesday,” Pallone said.
“During the ACA, we posted the bill online 30 days before the markup ― we had over 70 hearings,” he continued, adding that Republicans seemed intent on holding a full committee markup without a hearing “and no regular order whatsoever.”
Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) told reporters this week it was possible the committee would mark up the bill without a report from the Congressional Budget Office on how much the legislation would cost, or its impact on insurance coverage for millions of Americans.
Republicans on Thursday said that the Democratic hunt was ridiculous and that their members were still working on the legislation. Releasing it now, they said, would be premature.
“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,” the committee chairman, Greg Walden (R-Ore.), said in a statement. “We are continuing to work on drafting and refining legislative language to provide relief from a failing law.”
Walden said that process included giving committee members and staff the opportunity to work closely together to draft a bill. “Simply put, Energy and Commerce majority members and staff are continuing to discuss and refine draft legislative language on issues under our committee’s jurisdiction,” he said.
The measure Republicans are preparing to advance is a reconciliation bill that would repeal major parts of Obamacare and have some replacement provisions ― like health savings accounts, a Medicaid overhaul, and provisions on taxes and high-risk pools. If that bill is passed, Republicans would then try to move individual bills dealing with parts of the Affordable Care Act.
But those measures would need 60 votes, and Republicans are unlikely to get much more support than the reconciliation bill gets. They contend Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price can do some of the work administratively, and say they can attach other pieces to unrelated legislation.
This first bill is the big one, however, and Democrats said they and the public should be able to review it.
“It’d be good if we maybe had a sniffer dog,” Schakowsky told reporters.
She and Pallone then went into McCarthy’s office, asking for the location of the bill. No dice.
Then Pallone and Schakowsky went in search of Walden. Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), sensing a media frenzy, showed up to offer his services.
“I checked the men’s room,” Crowley said. “It’s not in there.”
“It’s really wrong that our Republican colleagues are trying to fashion a bill in secret,” Crowley said. It’s not the way this process is supposed to be carried out. And it’s disgraceful to the democracy that we’re supposed to be representing here.”
When the group came up dry at Walden’s office in the Capitol, they travelled to the Rayburn building in search of him. When that didn’t work out, they went to the Energy and Commerce meeting room, where they were also unable to speak to Walden.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that the Republicans don’t want to give us the bill,” Pallone said.
While the search for the legislation was clearly a stunt, Democrats said Republicans were up to something far worse.
“The stunt is on the part of the Republicans,” Schakowsky said.
Michael McAuliff contributed reporting.