When the American Health Care Act died its first death in March, the House Republican who dealt the final, fatal blow to the bill was not a conservative member of the Freedom Caucus, nor was it a freshman worried about his or her chances of reelection.
It was Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, a 22-year House veteran, scion of a New Jersey political dynasty, and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Though the committee’s influence has diminished amid the GOP’s spendthrift ways of the last decade, its chairman sits on a perch just below the party leadership in the informal hierarchy of the House.
Frelinghuysen had been on few of the public whip counts listing who might vote against the health-care bill; his loyalty to Speaker Paul Ryan was assumed. But on the day the House was set to vote, Frelinghuysen blindsided his Republican colleagues by releasing a statement opposing the legislation on the grounds that it would impose “significant new costs and barriers to care” on his constituents in New Jersey. In the hours after his announcement, similar statements from fence-sitting Republicans flooded in, and Ryan pulled the bill from the floor.
Six weeks later, GOP leaders are once again scrambling to pass their replacement for the Affordable Care Act, having secured the support of the Freedom Caucus with an amendment weakening the current law’s insurance mandates. Again they appear short of votes, and again they find themselves reeling from the surprising defection of a party stalwart. This time it was Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, a 30-year House vet who until January served as chairman of one of the two committees charged with writing Republican health policy. As head of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Upton was instrumental in the dozens of bills the House GOP passed to repeal or roll back Obamacare, along with its largely undeveloped plans to replace it. The only reason he isn’t still chairman of the panel—and as such, an architect of the AHCA—is that House Republicans bar their members from leading a single committee for more than three terms.