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Barbershop: ACA Repeal Failure, Russian Interference Investigation


And now we thought we'd take this into the Barbershop. That's where we gather a group of interesting folks to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Joining us for a shape up today are Jennifer Rubin. She writes the Conservative "Right Turn" blog for The Washington Post. Domenico Montanaro is political editor here at NPR. They're both here with us in our studios. Thanks for coming.


JENNIFER RUBIN: Nice to be here.

MARTIN: And with us from his home office in D.C. in the D.C. suburbs - OK, let's call it that - Ken Rudin. He's a longtime political analyst and host of a radio show called "Ken Rudin's Political Junkie." Ken, thank you so much for joining us once again.

KEN RUDIN: Michel, it's a secret location.

MARTIN: OK, it's a secret location. We'll try to keep it secret.

MONTANARO: One of us has to not be in the studio.

MARTIN: Exactly. So we're going go back to this story that's really consumed us this hour - the many ups and downs in the saga of the Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. And as we all know by now, if we've been following this, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that Republicans were pulling the latest bill rather than pushing a vote that did not have enough votes to pass into - here's President Trump speaking from the Oval Office a little later.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But I'll tell you, what's going to come out of it is a better bill - I really believe a better bill - because there were things in this bill I didn't particularly like, and I think it's a better bill. You know, both parties can get together and do real health care. That's the best thing. Obamacare was rammed down everyone's throat - 100 percent Democrat. And I think having bipartisan would be a big, big improvement. So no, I think that this is going to end up being a very good thing.

MARTIN: Jennifer, I'm going to go to you first on this because you've been writing a lot about this. You've been pretty tough on pretty much everybody in the course of this. But one of the things that caught my attention is where you said that there really was nothing inevitable about how this all played out, that deals could have been struck all along. So just as briefly as you can, tell us where do you think things went off the rails, and do you agree with the president, that something good could come out of this?

RUBIN: I think it was wrong in substance, and it was wrong in process. Somehow Paul Ryan got it in his mind that in 17 days he could introduce a bill, stick in front of his members, get it passed. And by the end of that 17 days, I would venture a guess that maybe 20 people actually in the House knew what was in it. It was changing all along. And it became this sort of bastardized version, sort of Obamacare, not really Obamacare, repealing some of the regulations, not repealing some of the regulations. So it was a substantive mess. It was a, I think, a political disaster for Paul Ryan, who really for the first time had to try to govern, not only pass a bill but pass a bill that was going to be signed, which is a different exercise. And yes, I think it was a debacle.

What could have been done differently? Well, where was the president? If he thought that bipartisanship was the way to go and that we could have a better bill, where's he been? He is president. Why didn't he tell Paul Ryan start the way President Obama did - it was a 13-month process, they had hearings, they had markups, the president went around the country, there was the big summit with the Republicans - and do the legwork to come up with a bill that you think can have some bipartisan buy-in. That may have been very difficult, but no one said this was easy.

MARTIN: You know what? I'm going to ask you later why do you think he didn't, but let me hear from Domenico on this. Do you think - does this tell us anything about the prospects that the party faces? This is unified government now. I mean, the Republicans control every major branch of government, except for the judiciary, which is now, you know, 4-4 because of the vacant seat. Does this tell us anything about the prospects for passing other parts of their agenda?

MONTANARO: Well, it's certainly harmful. I mean, this was a fundamental failure on all sides for Republicans. I mean, this is something that they've been promising for seven years to repeal and to replace the - replace Obamacare. I mean, this was what animated the 2010 elections, 2012, 2014. And the fact that they didn't have anything ready to go is just a fundamental failure on all sides. And for President Trump to show the kind of impatience he did to then deliver this ultimatum, which in "The Art Of The Deal" he talks about, you know, you've got to be willing to walk away from the deal and that should be the thing that is the lever that can get people to go - well, he put all his chips in and lost all of them, you know, and then walks away from it. And somehow now he's going to reach out to Democrats, but they're not going to work on health care now. They're going to move on to tax reform, and tax reform, by the way, is a lot harder than health care.

MARTIN: Ken, what do you think? What do you think this means for the agenda of the Trump White House going forward and also congressional Republicans?

RUDIN: Well, if you make the argument that the House Freedom Caucus was emboldened by their opposition to Obamacare Lite (ph) as we heard Tom DeLay say, which is kind of funny, I mean - but if you think that the conservatives are more emboldened, then I don't see what you can do and what you can say that will bring along more moderates, let alone entice Democrats to come onboard. Yes - it's interesting. We talked about how the Democrats so-called rammed Obamacare down Congress's throat with no Republican votes. But the point is Donald Trump did not reach out to any Democrat to make it a more bipartisan thing. I agree with everything I've heard. I think it's much easier to campaign than it is to govern, as Republicans are learning. I think it's much easier to say no, because they've been saying no for seven years, than it is to say yes. And I don't see how a new bill that brings along the conservatives would be any more palatable to the moderates who are nervous and the Democrats who just completely are against it.

MARTIN: And, Jennifer, very briefly on this, if we could, is there any prospect that Democrats would be willing to join with Republicans to improve the bill? They recognize that there are issues with the way that the market is working right now. Is there any prospect of that? You said this is an opportunity for them.

RUBIN: I think the only prospect would be if basically they worked on Obamacare as it is and tried to correct some of the errors. Both sides - ironically, both believe the same problem, and that is affordability. So working within the confines of Obamacare, could they reach some agreement that would entice insurers back in the market, that would make it more affordable for people in rural areas, for example? So I think Republicans are not ready to do that. And as a result, there probably isn't anything that can be done, at least in the near term.

MARTIN: I don't want to miss the opportunity to talk about this ongoing controversy, which got a little bit buried because of all the news at the end of the week, which was that at the beginning of the week FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the FBI is conducting an investigation to potential Russian ties to members of the Trump campaign in the lead-up to the election. More activity this week, Domenico. Do you want to tell us a little bit more about that, and why does it matter?

MONTANARO: Yeah. In a nutshell, we do know there are investigations going on. You mentioned the FBI. We know it's happening in Congress as well. What we learned is that the FBI director, James Comey, said that there is an investigation into the Trump campaign and whether or not they colluded at all with Russia. He also said that there was no evidence to Donald Trump's claim that Barack Obama wiretapped him. Congress, on the other hand, had all this drama where we saw Devin Nunes, the chairman of the Senate Intel - the House Intelligence Committee, who broke bipartisanship, said that there was this surveillance that had been happening of Trump Tower but not that Trump had been wiretapped, which led the left and right to spin that in completely different directions.

And we saw Democrats outraged, and there were calls for - increased calls for an independent investigation. Republicans, at this hearing - at these hearings seemed more interested in where the leaks came from rather than the substance of the hearing. And what we know going forward, Democrats are annoyed that they feel like there isn't transparency because there was a hearing that was supposed to be open on Tuesday that was canceled. Now, there's going to be a closed meeting where they're bringing Comey and the NSA director, Mike Rogers, back. And the final development - Nunes announcing that Paul Manafort, Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump, and Roger Stone, who had been a longtime adviser in the ear of Donald Trump, have volunteered to come in, though no date is set.

MARTIN: I'm afraid we're going to run out of time and not have a chance to talk about what would normally be an enormous story, which is the confirmation of another potential Supreme Court nominee. So I'm just going to take the minute we have left and ask Jennifer, first you, and then I'll ask Ken to close it out. Is this a big deal, this Russian - this whole question about Russian involvement, alleged involvement, and so on has just been drip, drip, drip - does this matter, Jennifer?

RUBIN: It absolutely matters. There's a real question as to whether the president or people around him have been compromised in some fashion. We still don't know why the president, who says he puts America first, has this very peculiar reticence about criticizing anything that Russia does. And I think until we get to the bottom of it, which may not be for a while, we're not going to be able to move past it.

MARTIN: Ken, very briefly, we have to move on - big deal or not.

RUDIN: Absolutely a big deal. It's interesting that Donald Trump will attack our allies, he'll attack fellow Republicans in Congress but not attack Russians. This is a very big deal. It should be investigated by the FBI and the intelligence agencies.

MARTIN: That was Ken Rudin, Domenico Montanaro and Jennifer Rubin. They were all here with us. Thanks so much for joining us.

RUDIN: Thank you.

MONTANARO: Thank you.

RUBIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered,where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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