WASHINGTON — Amid the bustle of afternoon votes, Rep. Dennis Ross came bounding around the corner with news. "We're getting closer. Neal Dunn is now on board," he said, referring to a fellow Florida Republican House member.
Ross and other vote wranglers have been furiously tracking support for the Obamacare replacement bill. More accurately, they've been sizing up the opposition, which is coming from factions within the Republican Party. Concerns focus on policy disputes and fears that the bill is being rushed; it passed through key committees even before the traditional cost analysis.
The American Health Care Act is in precarious shape, lacking the 216 Republican votes necessary to overcome blanket Democratic opposition ahead of a momentous vote set for today, the seventh anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. House Speaker Paul Ryan was meeting with a group of holdouts Wednesday night.
"If we don't pass this out of the House, this is the beginning of the end for us as a Republican Party," Ross said, predicting voters will exact revenge on lawmakers who have campaigned against the Affordable Care Act — and taken dozens of symbolic votes against it — but falter now that they have the power to do something real.
"I would love to do more," Ross said. "But I can't go home with nothing. This process never gives you the perfect product. It's like a marriage, there's a give and take. So to my ultra conservative friends, I get frustrated because I think they may have some sense of ignorance to the process.
"What are they going to say when they go back home, 'I prevented a better plan from going through because it wasn't as good as it should have been?' I'm having a hard time understanding that logic. I'm having a hard time understanding their purpose of being up here."
Ross, who lives in Lakeland and was elected in the 2010 tea party wave, is no moderate.
But he's committed to the legislation and as a senior deputy whip is doing the job of bringing on other members. While President Donald Trump and Speaker Ryan employ more aggressive tactics, Ross is going for a personal touch, reaching out to colleagues and relaying their concerns to leadership. "I'm pretty much a conduit, a messenger," he said.
Tuesday afternoon, he could be seen huddling with Rep. Matt Gaetz, a conservative rookie from Fort Walton Beach. On Wednesday, Gaetz said he'll vote for the bill, citing a change to prevent states from expanding Medicaid.
As viewed through Ross, the effort illustrates a broader struggle for the GOP, which now controls the House, Senate and the White House. Action is much harder than mounting a wall of opposition to the Democratic agenda.
"Suddenly we're in a position to govern, and I don't know if we can adapt to that as well as we thought," Ross, 57, said in an interview from his office.
"If we can't muster enough to get this over to the Senate, which will change it, we won't be able to go on to tax reform, infrastructure, Dodd-Frank, just about anything," he added. "This will basically shut us down because we'll be so fractionalized."
The problem comes from both ideological ends of the GOP. Moderates such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami came out against the bill because it cut coverage for the poor and people ages 50-64. Changes have been made that would provide more assistance, but they haven't placated all. Conservatives say the bill retains too many of Obamacare's features; they too have been courted with adjustments, including a provision allowing states to require Medicaid recipients to work or do community service.
But as of Wednesday, more than 25 members of the conservative Freedom Caucus were calling for a do-over, putting today's vote in peril. Leaders can't afford more than 22 defections. Pushing the opposition are groups such as Heritage Action and Club for Growth, which see the plan as Obamacare-lite. The Club for Growth is working on moderates, including pushing an online ad in Ros-Lehtinen's district.
"Don't fall for fake repeal," a narrator says. "Vote no on Ryancare and get rid of Obamacare for good." The group planned a TV version but backed off as it appeared Ros-Lehtinen was a firm no vote.
On the other side, anti-abortion groups are urging support as is Americans for Tax Reform, whose no new tax pledge is sacrosanct for many conservatives.
Trump threatened Tuesday to keep track of who votes against the plan and said Republicans would pay in the 2018 midterm elections — a contention Ross believes is accurate. "A lot of us will be primaried," he said, meaning drawing a challenge from a fellow Republican, "and there's a very good chance we'll lose the majority."
Ross said the Obamacare repeal effort needs to be viewed in stages, the first being the bill before the House, which is limited in scope due to Senate rules that will prevent a Democratic filibuster. Two other stages are designed to wipe away other aspects of the law, including regulations on insurers.
"There are so many things in this bill that puts us beyond what we ever thought we could get," Ross said. "Definitely beyond what we thought we could get six months ago when it looked like we would not only be rolled in the White House but also the Senate and maybe the House. We've got to be able to come together."
Part of the problem, Ross said, is there are fewer incentives for reluctant lawmakers. Budget earmarks were banned under former Speaker John Boehner and stripping a member of a committee post may only engender more recalcitrance. "You somewhat embolden them and martyr them."
(Ironically, Ross has experienced the heavy hand of leadership. While in the Florida Legislature, serving under House Speaker Marco Rubio, he was stripped of a committee chairmanship for voting against a massive property insurance bill. Now-U.S. Sen. Rubio was noncommittal about the health care bill Wednesday, saying it could be changed once again.)
Trump continued Wednesday to work over members, inviting another group of Republicans, including Florida Reps. Daniel Webster and Ted Yoho, to the White House for talks. On Friday, he gave Rep. Brian Mast of Palm City a ride home on Air Force One. Mast remains undecided.
Ross has hope.
"There are those who will try to be the most-popular person at the dance and be courted by everybody until the eleventh hour," he said. "And then we'll see how they vote."