WASHINGTON — Suspense was the word of the day outside of the U.S. House chamber Tuesday, as Republicans scrambled to figure out which members of their caucus opposed the plan to overhaul former President Obama's health care law that Speaker Paul Ryan and President Donald Trump aim to put to a vote on Thursday.
Republicans across the board are bracing for, as one Texas delegation staffer put it, a "squeaker" of a vote margin — if the bill even makes it to the floor. With Democrats uniformly opposed to the proposed legislation, Ryan and his lieutenants — including some Texans — have little wiggle room to negotiate policy differences between the GOP's hardliners and moderates.
And even then, there are no assurances that the Senate and House can square away their differences.
"It's going to be just as hard to repeal this thing as it was to pass it," said Texas GOP consultant Brendan Steinhauser, who fought the original Democratic overhaul tooth and nail in 2010 as an activist for a conservative group called Freedomworks.
For years, voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act was an easy task — as long as Obama was in office. House Republicans did dozens of times once they took control of the House in 2011. With an Obama veto perpetually looming, Republicans were free to pass a clean repeal without having to worry about unsavory policy implications.
But now, with Trump in the White House, the GOP will own the policy consequences of repeal, and a majority of Republicans are wary of a drastic end to the current system. Changes aimed at attracting more "yes" votes are expected to the bill Wednesday.
Debate over those tweaks will take place in the House Rules Committee on Wednesday, which will be chaired by U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions of Dallas.
But even then there are no assurances. Changes made to appease the right wing of the caucus could alienate the moderates, and vice versa.
The other pivotal Texas player this week is U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady of the Woodlands. As the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, leadership sources say he is playing the role of educating members about the tax policy angles of the legislation.
Another Texan, U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess of Lewisville, serves as the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health chairman. He downplayed his role in whipping the vote.
"I have one vote, just like everyone else," he told the Tribune.
Perhaps the most consequential arm twister of House Republicans is the chief executive: Trump himself.
The president is far more directly engaged than his predecessor was and has actively courted the rank and file with invitations to the White House.
U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe of Heath is one of the Republicans Trump helped convince.
"Here's the thing, 76 percent of the people in my district voted for President Trump, who ran on repealing and replacing Obamacare," he told the Tribune. "Hillary Clinton got 21 percent of the vote running on keeping Obamacare. That's exactly the choice and vote that I get on Thursday."
U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, is optimistic that the bill will pass once Sessions moves the bill through the Rules committee.
"I think we'll pass it. Some work has to be done still. Some guys aren't quite on board yet," he told the Tribune Tuesday afternoon. "We're making a lot of progress, and I think we'll pass it sometime Thursday night."
If Olson is wrong, though, the anticipation is that leadership will not allow the bill on the floor. Perhaps, some of the more skittish Republicans say, another week of maneuvering might muster a bill acceptable to a majority of the House.
The consequences of all-out failure could be catastrophic for the GOP. President Bill Clinton's failed effort at reform essentially derailed momentum for the rest of his first-term agenda. Many Republicans worry that a failed attempt at repeal would result in the same consequences for Trump, who is already under political fire over questions that associates might have colluded with Russian intelligence during the 2016 campaign.
Additionally, the bill is expected to be jammed in the Senate. Again, moderates and conservatives in that chamber are exerting their political power. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas could surface as a player in that scenario, as he's expected to call for major changes in how legislation moves through the Senate to enact more conservative policies.
The overall GOP fear though, is that failure on this more immediate House vote could torpedo momentum for tax reform and deregulation. The president told Republicans during a Capitol visit Tuesday that incumbents could lose their seats if the bill does not pass, according to one member of Congress.
With that pressure bearing down on the legislative push, Trump could switch from carrots to sticks and punish members who oppose him.
Well-organized and well-funded Tea Party groups are mostly against the proposed overhaul, creating angst for many Republicans in safe seats. The dilemma for many members — including Texans — is this: Anger the libertarian conservative base, or risk venturing into the crosshairs of Trump's Twitter feed and populist following?
The overriding sense in interviews with House Republican members and staffers is that Trump is the more fearsome threat.
Democrats, uniformly against the proposed plan, are on the sidelines of this fight. They have observed the drama with some concern about the repeal but also with some karmic glee that Republicans are on track to likely politically own an issue that decimated the Democratic ranks for seven years.
A handful of the more junior Democrats said they were surprised to hear a president be so engaged with whipping the vote — it was a well-known frustration among Democrats that Obama was averse to wrangling House Democrats in most policy debates.
But U.S. Rep. Gene Green, a Houston Democrat, recalled former President Bill Clinton's unsuccessful attempt to twist his arm on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Green turned him down in a visit to the Oval Office. Clinton took no future political retribution on Green, but at the time the junior Texas congressman was unnerved as he walked out of the office door.
"My chief of staff was with me at the time, and I joked with him, 'I'm sure glad the draft is over because I think I would have been drafted.'"