Rep. Andy Harris, part of the conservative Freedom Caucus that helped tank President Donald Trump's health care legislation, said Monday that Republicans only needed a little more time to reach an agreement and that the House should return to the issue later this year.
The 30-plus-member bloc of deficit hawks has found itself under fire from some in the GOP as congressional leaders and the White House assess what went wrong with their plan to repeal the Obamacare health insurance law — and begin to assign blame. That soul-searching could have implications for the rest of Trump's legislative agenda, including tax reform, infrastructure investment and spending cuts.
Maryland's only Republican in Congress, Harris opposed the measure at a critical moment in the negotiations. The Johns Hopkins-trained anesthesiologist, who made repealing Obamacare a central theme of his campaigns, defended the Freedom Caucus in an interview Monday, and said last-minute efforts to broker a compromise were undermined by a take-it-or-leave-it approach and an immovable deadline.
"Had the deadline been extended for a couple of days, or negotiations not cut off midweek last week, we'd probably be in a very different place right now," the Baltimore County Republican said. "You can't possibly come to an agreement on negotiated changes if no further changes are going to be made."
Days after Republican leaders in the House pulled the legislation to "repeal and replace" Obamacare, Trump took to Twitter to argue that "Democrats are smiling" over the bill's failure. He blamed the Freedom Caucus and outside conservative groups, saying they "saved Planned Parenthood & Ocare!"
After coming together to battle President Barack Obama's agenda, the Freedom Caucus had appeared for a while to lose relevance amid the populist movement that swept Trump into office. But the recent debate underscores that it remains a political force with the sway to negotiate directly with the White House and potentially decide the fate of Trump's agenda.
White House officials have said the administration is moving on to its next big legislative goal: A rewrite of the nation's byzantine tax code.
The future potency of the Freedom Caucus likely will depend on whether the White House continues to negotiate with the group or looks instead to broker deals with centrist Democrats. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday that the administration's strategy and alliances would "depend on the legislation."
"We're going to work with anybody who wants to work with us on achieving the goals the president set out," he said.
Harris said he understood the president's frustration but said he doesn't believe the caucus will lose influence with the administration. Harris said he doesn't see many scenarios in which Democrats will join with Trump — meaning the president will continue to need to work with centrist and conservative Republicans to get legislation through Congress.
Harris was careful not to criticize the White House, saying Trump had "done his job" and that "the ball is now in the court of the House of Representatives."
Several Maryland Republicans who supported Trump said they didn't blame the president or Freedom Caucus members like Harris. Frank Mirabile, who chaired Trump's campaign in Howard County, blamed Democrats, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and "business as usual in Washington.
"Republicans are hacked off because they didn't get this done," Mirabile said. "Does this mean that it won't get done? No. It's part of the process."
Harris became something of a wild card during the machinations over the bill. When the legislation was introduced, he appeared to be supportive, saying the measure would drive down costs while providing "access to high-quality, affordable health insurance." He also praised the bill for maintaining protections for patients with pre-existing conditions and young adults who want to stay on their parents' health insurance.
As the legislation was rewritten to address concerns from the Freedom Caucus, Harris said he was opposed. On the day of the vote, an aide said he was undecided.
Harris said his initial, favorable statement was based on his understanding that the legislation would be open to amendment. But he said after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released its analysis it "became clear that the one missing element ... is that it didn't do enough to bring down premiums quickly — that really is what's on people's minds in my district."
Harris said he felt negotiations were moving in the right direction. But those talks appear to have been cut off once Trump officials told House leaders late Thursday to take it or leave it.
Members of the Freedom Caucus chose the latter option.
It wasn't conservatives alone who doomed the health care overhaul, known as the American Health Care Act. As the White House sought to appease Freedom Caucus members, some centrist Republicans grew worried about a backlash against eliminating popular provisions of Obamacare.
"There's plenty of blame to go around," said Dr. Mark Edney, vice chairman of the Wicomico County Republican Central Committee. "Everybody's frustrated that this didn't get done, but it's not Andy's fault and it's not Trump's fault — it's everybody's fault."
Harris said he will stick to his plan to hold a town hall meeting with constituents Friday in Wye Mills, where he's likely to face questions about his position from all sides in the debate.
"I'll be very interested to hear what people have to say about this bill in the position it's in," Harris said. "I don't think the process is over."
Washington bureau reporter Lisa Mascaro contributed to this article.