By Scott Wong and Mike Lillis - 03-25-17 06:00 AM EDT
For the past seven years, Republicans vowed that if voters handed them the levers of power in Washington, they would quickly gut ObamaCare.
But when the moment of truth came Friday, Republicans choked.
GOP leaders' last-minute decision to scrap their bill to repeal and replace ObamaCare represented a stunning defeat for Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and President Trump, just 64 days after the billionaire business mogul and political neophyte took office.
It also raised serious questions about Ryan's ability to manage a warring conference that's appeared, in decisive moments, to be held hostage by a small group of recalcitrant conservatives hell-bent on getting their way.
And it cast immediate doubts on whether Trump - who has sold himself as the consummate dealmaker - can transition from business guru and campaign showman to effective Washington power broker.
"It weakens our ability to govern," lamented Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), who had spent the week aggressively urging leaders to hold the vote.
The loss of political capital will likely affect the fate of Trump's ambitious 2017 agenda, which includes tax reform, infrastructure and border security. And GOP leaders are already conceding it'll be a difficult path ahead.
Earlier this week, Trump trekked to the Capitol and warned Republicans that failing to get healthcare done could derail his entire agenda. Ryan, a master of spin, didn't even try to sugarcoat the situation, calling it a "setback" and "disappointing day." Tax reform, he said, will now be "more difficult" though not impossible.
"Moving from an opposition party to a governing party comes with growing pains," Ryan told reporters. "And, well, we're feeling those growing pains today."
Ryan's struggles this week harken back to those of his predecessor, former Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who was pushed into an early retirement by the House Freedom Caucus - the same bloc of defiant conservatives that sunk the ObamaCare repeal effort.
This week's healthcare fight is a clear attestation that, 18 months later, the placard over the Speaker's office may be different, but the headwinds facing GOP leaders within their own conference remain the same.
The Freedom Caucus has roughly three dozen members, which is plenty to sink any leadership proposal they oppose. Under former President Obama, the group emerged most prominently during spending fights, forcing GOP leaders to reach across the aisle for Democratic support to keep the government running.
Friday's dramatic events put GOP leaders on notice that the Freedom Caucus, led by Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), won't stop flexing its muscles simply because Republicans control the White House and both chambers of Congress.
In the heat of healthcare negotiations, conservatives studied up on Trump's best-selling book on business, "The Art of the Deal." Tea Party Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) dropped by a recent Freedom Caucus meeting and passed out copies of the book to every member, a scene that was captured in the Showtime political reality TV show "The Circus."
Then Paul read members a line from Trump's book:
"The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it," Paul recited. "That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you're dead."
With that tip from the president himself, Freedom Caucus members recognized Trump's negotiating tactic when he delivered an ultimatum to House Republicans Thursday night: The talks were over; take the deal or leave it.
Freedom Caucus Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said he was as "pleased as can be" that the legislation failed.
"The fight goes on. We should not surrender on this issue. We should advance the ObamaCare [full] repeal legislation," Brooks said as he left Friday's emergency GOP conference meeting.
"Last time it went to President Obama's desk and was vetoed; this time that same legislation ought to be put on the desk of President Trump."
Since the campaign, Trump and Ryan have had a complicated, sometimes testy, relationship. But in front of the cameras on Friday, they went out of their way to praise and thank each other for their work on the health bill.
The same could not be said for rank-and-file Republicans. After Ryan announced in a Friday meeting he and Trump were scrapping the vote and "moving on" from health care, some lawmakers streaming out of the meeting appeared ashen-faced and shell-shocked. At least one lawmaker was in tears.
Others who supported the bill were furious at the Freedom Caucus for rejecting the compromise bill floated by Trump and Ryan.
"There are times when you fight for your position, fight for your position, fight for your position, then you either play with the team or you don't play with the team," Byrne told The Hill on Friday.
The Freedom Caucus "can't pass anything. Blocking something is not the same thing as being in charge," he said.
Congress is not the only thorn in Trump's side through his first 100 days. The president initiated his White House tenure with a series of executive orders aimed at carrying out some of his chief campaign promises. But the most prominent among them - a ban on refugees and travelers from certain Muslim countries - was quickly shot down by the courts.
The early pushback from both the legislative and judicial branches has been a sobering lesson on checks and balances and a stark reminder of the limits to his executive power.
It's a lesson that hasn't been overlooked by Trump.
"We all learned a lot. We learned a lot about loyalty. We learned a lot about the vote-getting process," Trump said Friday in an unusually humble moment after the vote was called off.
Ryan on Friday said Republicans are ready to move beyond healthcare, even as he acknowledged that means ObamaCare "is going to remain the law of the land ... for the foreseeable future."
But in an early sign that the clash between Ryan and his conservative wing is not over, some Freedom Caucus members are already clamoring to jump right back into the effort to repeal ObamaCare.
"I don't know about the Speaker," said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), "But a lot of us will be back to it next week."
Cristina Marcos contributed.