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Rep. Kevin Brady isn’t stressed. He’s “excited.”

Dallas News

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Washington, March 22, 2017 | comments

As critical health care vote looms, the pressure is on for Texas Rep. Brady, chief tax writer

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Texas Rep. Kevin Brady isn’t stressed. He’s “excited.”

That’s what Brady, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, says about life at the center of the GOP’s most urgent initiatives: overhauling the American health care system and its tax code.

Even before Donald Trump was elected president, The Woodlands Republican was a critical player in developing Speaker Paul Ryan’s once-unlikely plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and shake up the nation’s tax laws -- goals that took on new urgency with Trump’s surprise victory.

As Congress’ chief tax writer, he’s since worked around the clock in recent months with other GOP leaders on legislation to replace Obamacare with the American Health Care Act. The contentious battle with Democrats and conservatives will come to a head in a House vote on the health bill as soon as Thursday. If it passes, it will head to the Senate for consideration.

For Brady and Republican leadership, this week’s vote isn’t just about revamping health care for millions of Americans. It’s a critical indicator of whether Republicans will have the support, and room in the budget, to tackle their long-term desire to overhaul the federal tax code.

Their success or failure won’t just affect a few hundred million Americans, but will become part of their personal legacies -- and that of the New York businessman now running the country from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

President Donald Trump listens as Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), left, the majority whip, spoke during a meeting about efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, at the White House in Washington, March 7, 2017. A number of conservatives have already sharply criticized the bill which House Republicans unveiled on Monday. At right of Trump is Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas). (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

But if Brady -- whose committee oversaw part of the health care bill and will shepherd the tax overhaul -- is feeling the pressure, he’s reluctant to show it.

“I’ve never had as exciting a challenge as this, both in health care reform and tax reform,” said Brady, a former chamber of commerce executive, in a recent interview at his Washington office. “We are running full steam on both tracks right now. And as Congress, we have to deliver in a very positive way on both for the country this year.”

As he speaks about the challenges at hand during the morning interview, he doesn’t touch his drink of choice: Diet Coke. And like many House GOP members on this day, Kevin Patrick Brady is wearing a kelly green and navy tie in honor of an Irish holiday.

The six flags that have flown over Texas line the back wall of his office, and encased baseballs and bats are displayed a nearby table -- no surprise for the former University of South Dakota college athlete who once dislocated a shoulder while sliding into home during a Congressional Baseball Game. (He scored.)

His room showcases newer memorabilia, too. Like the neatly stacked pile of red “Make America Great Again” garb -- a reminder of who sits in the White House, and the GOP’s mission to deliver on big-ticket campaign promises.

Brady, 61, is seasoned in the Washington political game, having served in Congress for 20 years after three terms in the Texas House. He cites multiple trade deals and tax cuts under former President George W. Bush among his greatest legislative achievements.

But even while smiling -- something he does easily with lawmakers and reporters alike -- he concedes the stakes are higher than ever.

“On a scale of one to 10, those were fives,” he said of previous challenges. “This is a 15.”

The issues regularly invade his sleep, he confessed. “I wake up thinking about tax reform and health care, all the time.”

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) and Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) attend a House Rules Committee meeting to set the rules for debate and amendments on H.R.1628, the American Health Care Act, on Capitol Hill, March 22, 2017 in Washington. A vote on the Republican-led health care bill is tentatively scheduled for Thursday in the House. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The chairman predicts Republicans will find common ground on the American Health Care Act, but victory has been far from certain in the days leading up to the House vote.

Democrats have blasted the bill as a tax giveaway for the rich, and say the poor will struggle to afford coverage. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that while the legislation will result in a savings of $337 billion over a decade, as many as 24 million more Americans will lose insurance under the GOP proposal by 2026, compared to Obamacare.

Many conservative members in the House and Senate say the AHCA doesn’t go far enough in undoing Obamacare. They also slam the use of refundable tax credits to help Americans buy insurance -- something Brady defends as equalizing tax treatment for people who don’t receive work-sponsored coverage -- as a new entitlement program.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has even blasted House Republican leadership, of which Brady is a member, as “weak-kneed.” 

.@FreedomWorks formally comes out against #AHCA, urges no vote in letter to GOP members. https://t.co/yYW8oN0A9X

— Katie Leslie (@katieleslienews) March 22, 2017

Despite a few concessions by Ryan, and Trump’s warnings to Republicans this week to get behind the health care bill, many members remain opposed. Among the expected no-votes is a handful of Brady's Republican colleagues in the Texas delegation, such as Tyler Rep. Louis Gohmert, Arlington Rep. Joe Barton and even Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, according to The Huffington Post. 

North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, who leads the 30-member House Freedom Caucus, told Bloomberg on Monday that “there are not enough votes to pass the legislation.”

Brady shrugged off much of the noise as the inevitable push back on major legislation, but acknowledged he was taken aback by the cries of “Obamacare-Lite” from some in his own party.

“Those are just silly claims designed to get attention,” he said.  

Despite the headaches caused by conservative colleagues, Brady isn’t showing signs of cracking, said Illinois Rep. John Shimkus, a Republican who shares a D.C. townhouse with Brady, Minnesota Rep. Erik Paulsen and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.

“He’s not throwing things or punching walls,” Shimkus joked, musing that Brady’s easy nature is the result of his South Dakota upbringing. “I’ve never seen him angry. They’ve seen me angry, but that’s a different story.”

Dave Camp, who led the Ways and Means committee under former Speaker John Boehner, was effusive with praise for his one-time colleague. Smart. Thoughtful. Calm. Prepared.

But make no mistake, Camp said. “He has a very engaging demeanor, but he’s tough as nails.”

The degree to which Brady’s personal fortunes are tied to the GOP’s success is up for debate.

“People ‘in the know’ know he’s climbing Mount Everest with this,” said Sherri Greenberg, a former lawmaker and Democrat who served with Brady in the Texas statehouse. “If he tried and fails, he still tried.”

Trump and Ryan are more likely to feel the heat from a health care failure, she predicted. But in the world of Texas politics, she said she wouldn’t be surprised if criticisms of “Obamacare-Lite” re-emerge in a primary challenge.

Brady faced his first tough primary last year amid criticisms he lacks conservative chops, and narrowly avoided a runoff by winning 53 percent of the vote. In his heavily red suburban district near Houston, a credible challenge from the left is far less of a threat.

But Doug Centilli, his former longtime chief of staff, predicted the Texan will remain unscathed. “If we come up with a good well-functioning solution to Obamacare, the fact that somebody who didn’t like the way the process was going called it ‘Obamacare-Lite’ is not going to register on anybody’s radar,” he said.

Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, notes Brady has long aspired to rewrite the federal tax code. But as Trump warned GOP lawmakers this week, achieving that goal hinges on passing the health care bill, both for budgetary and political reasons.

“For Brady, it’s essentially a double win ... or two goose eggs,” Jones said. “He either gets health care reform and tax reform, or this time next year has nothing to show for it.”

Despite Trump’s warnings that some GOP members could lose House seats if the health care overhaul fails, Brady said he’s not thinking about what it means for his legacy, or his next race.

“I’m concerned if Republicans don’t pull together and deliver on our promises: repealing Obamacare, fixing this broken tax code and getting this budget under control,” he said. “That’s my only concern, that we shake this place up and change the direction of this country in a positive way.”

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