Washington (CNN)It seemed like a just-about-even, all-too-familiar fight: traditional corporate power players staring down scrappier and ultimately hungrier insurgents dead-set on torpedoing the Republican health care bill.
In the battles of the past — over the Export-Import Bank, over the debt ceiling and even over Obamacare funding — it was almost always the heavyweight Wall Street-driven wing of the party that was crowned victorious in the internecine fight du jour within the GOP. But on Friday, a coalition of conservative hardliners discovered a so-far-unseen lobbying power that offers an initial snapshot into how the influence wars will be waged in Donald Trump’s Washington.
“We learned a lot about the vote-getting process. We learned a lot about some very arcane rules in obviously both the Senate and in the House,” a subdued Trump said in the Oval Office less than an hour after the Republican health care bill died. “There’s been a long history of liking and disliking, even within the Republican Party, long before I got here.”
The humiliating setback came, to be sure, more at the hands of a recalcitrant House Freedom Caucus than lobbyists, who were not in the rooms when key decisions were made. Members of Congress were not explicitly name-checking conservative allies who pledged to dock them should they vote the wrong way.
Yet much of the groups’ power — as it often does in lobbying — came from threats. But the month-long debate over the American Health Care Act spawned at least one new frontier in the influence industry: outside groups dangling and withholding money in real time in exchange for a politician’s support, a carrot-and-stick that Democrats were quick this week to say felt too close to quid-pro-quo bribery.
Rep. David Young of Iowa had been assumed to back the bill, partially due to the heavy money spent by leadership-aligned outside groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund to boost him in 2016. So Ryan-backed groups launched an ad lauding his work. When we went public with his plan to vote “no,” the group pulled its staff out of his district and said it would on longer spend on his behalf in the 2018 cycle.
Opponents of the bill played mirror-image hardball: The Koch network, in an unprecedented move, promised a reserve fund of millions of dollars accessible only to the representatives who voted their way — and excluded those who would not. It was another step of aggression for the powerful Republican network toward its own party, and a sign that they, too, are increasingly willing to use their vast resources to go after their own party.
Those stick-and-carrot tactics amount to a new era of pressure politics, an explicit incentive that goes beyond the traditional “Key Vote” scoring that K Street typically uses to connote a bill’s importance. And to be sure, a half-dozen major lobbies on both sides of the bill deemed it determinative of their future political support, from the dyed-in-the-establishment-wool U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the eager-for-primaries Club for Growth.
Most key stakeholders within the Republican Party lobbied against it: There was the AARP, the massive seniors-rights organization that argued to elderly Trump supporters that the change they sought in the election was not an “age tax.” The Club for Growth and the Kochs, who lobbied the White House from the Oval Office at an early sit-down with Trump in a display of resistance. And there was Heritage Action, the advocacy group with ties both to the Freedom Caucus and to the Trump White House, which celebrated the defeat with an air of vindication on Friday.
“Throughout this process, conservatives acted in good faith to deliver on longstanding campaign promise,” Heritage head Mike Needham said. “Today’s events gives conservatives a chance to reset that debate.”
Conspicuously absent during the whole debate: the political groups that Trump aides set up precisely for moments like this. America First Policies, the marquee nonprofit run by former Trump aides and blessed by the administration, was nowhere to be found until the final hours of the Obamacare debate. They appeared until Friday to not run a single advertisement to boost the legislation, too beset by donor drama and staff departures to serve as the “surround-sound” political infrastructure once envisioned by the White House.
“President Trump is keeping his promise,” went the sole Obamacare ad from the group that appeared online Friday morning, with no additional details behind it. “Now we need Congress to keep theirs.”