Something collapsed of its own weight last night, but it wasn't Obamacare. It was a partisan legislative effort that had grown completely disconnected from its ostensible purpose. Congressional Republicans, in the name of improving American health care, ended up searching for any bill they could pass — whatever its content.
Thursday's bizarre spectacle included Republican senators demanding assurances that a bill they were about to vote for would never become law. In the end, the fact that the "skinny repeal" — like every other variant the House and Senate had considered — would have left millions more Americans without health insurance proved too much for Republicans Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and John McCain.
Given the GOP's narrow 52-seat majority, their "no" votes were enough to sink the party's seven-year anti-Obamacare crusade. Spectacular dysfunction within the Trump White House — where a disengaged president oversees open warfare between his chief of staff and new communications director — only made the effort harder.
Now that GOP implosion threatens prospects for tax reform and President Donald Trump's entire legislative agenda. A similar disconnect between campaign commitments, policy goals and achievable legislation hangs over the remainder of the Republican agenda, which includes overhauling the tax code.
But Trump and Republican congressional leaders have no consensus on specific objectives. And since their legislative plan is to proceed with only Republican votes, they have minimal margin for error.
Trump, who championed the "forgotten" working class in his 2016 campaign, says his principal concern is cutting taxes for middle-income Americans. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who favors cutting top marginal tax rates above all, specifically rejects the idea of focusing a plan around cutting middle-class taxes.
Ryan, reflecting conservative deficit hawks in his caucus, wants a tax reform plan that does not increase budget deficits after accounting for economic growth. Trump and his aides emphasize tax cuts and are willing to accept higher deficits.
A tax reform statement released Thursday, just as health-care legislation foundered yet again, showed that the White House has prevailed on that point, at least for now. It shelved the so-called border adjustment tax that Ryan hoped would finance deep rate cuts for businesses.
What's not certain is whether a cuts-only plan that increases the federal debt could pass even in the House, where Republicans hold a substantial majority, much less the Senate. And while Ryan backs cutting the top personal tax rate, neither the Senate nor key players within the Trump White House have embraced that goal.
Hopes for a major infrastructure plan face the same dynamic. The White House has pledged a $1 trillion investment that uses $200 billion in taxpayer money to attract $800 billion in private capital.
But GOP leaders, already struggling to boost defense spending, raise the debt limit and pass a budget, face resistance from conservatives on infrastructure spending. Democratic lawmakers will insist on more spending if the White House decides to seek their votes.
For now there's only one clear lesson from the GOP's health-care failure. The size of Republican majorities now make partisanship for its own sake too heavy a burden to bear.