WASHINGTON — The Capitol is suddenly awash with trouble-makers and rebels — and that's just the Republicans.
Whatever GOP unity was produced by Donald Trump's victory in November has all but disappeared, and Republican leaders are confronting open rebellion in their ranks as they try to finalize health care legislation.
In the Senate, a trio of conservatives that's been a thorn in the side of leadership is back at it again. And in the House, recalcitrant conservatives are banding together and threatening to foil House Speaker Paul Ryan's plans for swift passage of the legislation to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama's health law.
"At this moment I don't plan to vote for it," one of the rebels, Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, remarked Thursday after a leadership presentation on the emerging health legislation.
Massie said leaders played clips of Trump's recent joint session speech, with the goal of convincing lawmakers that they are aligned with the president on the pending health bill.
But Massie dismissed the effort as "very unconvincing." And he and other conservatives claimed to count 20-plus GOP opponents to the health bill, enough to sink it if all Democrats vote "no."
Ryan and other GOP leaders, who are aiming to pass the legislation through the House and Senate by early April, have tried to keep a game face despite the turmoil.
"We are in sync — the House, the Senate and the Trump administration," Ryan insisted to reporters Thursday. "I am perfectly confident that when it's all said and done, we're going to unify, because we all, every Republican, ran on repealing and replacing, and we're going to keep our promises."
Maybe so, but first there will be some drama. And this week, there was plenty.
After mostly lying low and playing nice for the last several months, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas are now uniting against the health legislation, and like their conservative counterparts in the House, they command the votes to frustrate leadership efforts if they don't back down.
The lawmakers are criticizing the developing legislation as "Obamacare lite." They object in particular to a system of refundable tax credits that form the centerpiece of the legislation, and which they say would amount to a costly new entitlement. Instead they're demanding a vote on a straightforward repeal-only bill.
On Thursday, Paul infuriated GOP leaders on both ends of the Capitol by marching over to the House with a crowd of reporters and his own copy machine to demand to see the draft health bill, and criticize leadership for keeping it under wraps.
"I'm also being told by others that I should sit back and take it, that when you see it you get it, you take the House version or nothing else," Paul declared with cameras rolling. "And I don't think that's the way the American process should work."
The Kentucky senator's chaotic gaggle was followed by a bizarre and apparently spontaneous scavenger hunt by House Democrats who, after chancing upon reporters gathered to listen to Paul, formed an impromptu search party that roamed the Capitol and an adjacent office building in an ultimately futile hunt for the health bill.
Paul's stunt provoked thinly concealed irritation from GOP colleagues, including Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who chairs the health committee, of which Paul is a member. Alexander, a senior leadership ally, has been part of a group working on the replacement health care bill.
"Well, Sen. Paul is a valuable member of the committee and I think I'll give him a call and see if he'd like to have more information," Alexander said. "He and his staff have been briefed about the bill. He's had a chance to attend all the same meetings the rest of the senators have. So if he feels like he needs more information I'll be happy to give it to him."
Many Republicans say it's time, urgently, for the party to pull together and get behind a repeal-and-replace bill, after spending fully seven years promising exactly that to voters. They are not pleased that members of their own party are threatening their success.
"We do have some problems with two or three people on our side that make it so if this becomes a partisan vote we won't have the votes," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, another senior lawmaker. "It's a problem, it's a big problem."
Democrats who lived through their own share of drama before finally passing the Affordable Care Act can only stand back and jeer.
"Who would have thought, one month into the fight over the ACA, it's the Republicans, not the Democrats, who are in disarray and pointing at one another like an Abbott and Costello show," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
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