February 2, 2017
Rep. Pat Tiberi sits at the center of two of the biggest legislative and political debates in Washington today: the Affordable Care Act replacement, and the lingering question of whether President Trump has fundamentally changed the Republican Party and what it means for lawmakers ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
Tiberi, a nine-term Republican congressman from central Ohio, spent much of last year raising his profile and a significant sum of money, setting the stage for a 2018 Senate run. But now, two weeks into the Trump administration, Tiberi finds himself in a key role in advancing some of Trump’s and Republican lawmakers’ top legislative priorities. He also faces an uncertain political environment in Ohio that could temper his enthusiasm for a run.
He hasn’t decided whether to take the leap yet, and said during a 30-minute interview in his Capitol Hill office Tuesday that there’s no a time frame for an announcement. But the pressure may be on.
Josh Mandel, the Ohio treasurer and 2012 Republican Senate candidate, announced his own Senate run in December. While Tiberi insisted Mandel’s decision wouldn’t affect his own choice, Mandel will have a months-long head start.
“I don’t feel like I’m behind because we might have somebody in our state running around for years running for the Senate,” Tiberi said. He later added that a key question was who would be a better opponent for Democrat Sherrod Brown, considered one of the toughest incumbents Republicans will target next year. “Ultimately, I think it would be a tougher challenge to him than others who have been talking about it.”
But complicating Tiberi’s decision on seeking a new job is the incredible workload currently on his desk. As chairman of a health subcommittee tasked with key parts of the Obamacare repeal and replacement, and as chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, Tiberi has a hand in both health care and tax reform, two legislative debates that will dominate 2017 on Capitol Hill.
“I got these two really important issues that I’m dealing with on a daily basis that could change America, and so that’s my first priority,” Tiberi said. “Though I’ve been obviously thinking about it for a while and I’ve been, in my spare time, running around the state and raising more money to put myself in a position ultimately if I decide to do it.”
Tiberi’s role in the health care debate has been, for the first month of 2017, all-consuming. He’s working with Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady and other members to put together the legislation to thread the needle on a budgetary procedure to repeal the ACA, trying to find consensus from an increasingly restive GOP conference for a replacement. He’s also meeting with members outside the committee, explaining the nitty-gritty of the repeal and replace process to those not steeped in the details.
“There’s a lot of confusion about it, and there’s a lot of confusion about what the process was and how the Democrats did it,” said Tiberi, one of the few Republicans in Congress who were there when the health care law passed in 2010. He said he’s cautioning members that they can’t simply pass legislation to repeal the measure without something resolute in place. “And if we just said it goes away, that’s a million people in my state who won’t have health insurance tomorrow. That just can’t happen; there has to be some transition for them.”
While Speaker Paul Ryan said last week at the GOP retreat in Philadelphia that Obamacare would be completed in the spring, Tiberi said it’s possible the debate in Congress might not be finished until the end of the year.
That timeline could be problematic for a Senate bid, especially considering that Mandel, Tiberi’s would-be opponent, has a head start. Mandel, who narrowly lost to Brown in 2012, already has $1.6 million on hand, although Tiberi has more than $5 million in the bank. The conservative Club for Growth endorsed Mandel last year and released a poll showing him with a vast lead over Tiberi in name recognition.
Mandel didn’t immediately join the Trump Train last year – he originally endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio – but was enthusiastic in the end and has positioned his run for Senate as a Trump Republican. He promised in his announcement video to “drain the swamp” and “never succumb to political correctness.” More recently, he wrote an op-ed, “We are at war with radical Islam,” and earlier this week said Cincinnati would become a sanctuary city “over our dead body.”
Mandel’s effort to cast himself as the Trump candidate in the race is a complicated equation for Tiberi. The congressman started his career as an aide to then-Rep. John Kasich and he remains close to the Ohio governor, who has repeatedly clashed with Trump both during and after the election.
The president, seeking revenge on the Ohio Republicans seen as favoring Kasich over himself, personally waded into the race for the party’s state chairman, helping oust someone seen as too close to Kasich despite helping Trump win Ohio. Several Republican sources in Ohio said if a Tiberi-Mandel primary emerged, it would be difficult to avoid another rehash of the Kasich-Trump divide, though others cautioned that the narrative wasn’t accurate, and the party had already begun the process of moving on.
“Trump’s win is going to make it very difficult for [Tiberi] to run,” said one Ohio Republican strategist.
Others, however, said while Mandel’s positioning is effective now, the primary is more than a year away and things could change rapidly.
“I don’t know if in six months saying things like ‘drain the swamp’ and ‘over my dead body’ are going to play,” said a second Ohio strategist. “It’s a big gamble right now, and I think people notice that.”
In October, Tiberi was one of the many Republicans who called on Trump to leave the presidential race after the “Access Hollywood” recording emerged. But Tiberi insisted it wasn’t a concern as he weighed a Senate bid: “I don’t see it, I really don’t,” he said of the continued Kasich-Trump divide.
Tiberi argued that despite last year’s election, his position in Congress affords him a chance to forge a positive connection with the new administration, shepherding through some of Trump’s biggest legislative goals and attempting to help the president produce results. In that sense, Tiberi and Trump’s fates may be tied together. If the health care and tax pushes prove successful and boost Trump’s favorability, Tiberi can take credit and run on the accomplishment. If the efforts stall or prove unpopular, they would likely be a drag on both.
“I think the most important thing for President Trump and his administration right now is getting his priorities across the finish line, and you have someone in me who’s actually trying to do that,” Tiberi said in the interview. “Trying to actually make law, not just make a speech.”
But for now, Tiberi remains undecided and with no strict deadline for making up his mind. His days are spent in Ways and Means Committee meetings, laying the groundwork and trying to create the elusive Republican replacement for the ACA. With multiple senators crafting their own replacement plans and some urging a slowdown of the repeal process, and the House still far from consensus on a plan, Tiberi’s legislative work is still in the early stages. And once the plan is crafted, Republicans will still have to sell it.
“Whether you call it Trumpcare or something else that we’re moving to, what we argue is: Yeah, sure, the Affordable Care Act helped some people but it’s harmed a lot of other people,” Tiberi said. “What we want to do is unwind that. Whether you call it repair, whether you call it replace, whether you call it reform, we want to unwind that. It’s not going to be unwound tomorrow. It’s going to take time.”
James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.