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GOP, Dem foes of health care bill in scavenger hunt for copy

ALAN FRAM
FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, file photo, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., meets with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington before President Donald Trump's speech to the nation. Ryan is scheduled to visit Democratic-leaning Rhode Island. Ryan's office said he will be in the state Thursday to meet with supporters and attend several events. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Where's the Republicans' embryonic health care bill?

A maverick GOP senator and top Democrats staged made-for-TV scavenger hunts across the Capitol on Thursday for a draft of the measure, momentarily overshadowing months of labor by Republicans out to reshape the nation's health care system. Their goal: embarrass Republican leaders who have vowed to make the overhaul transparent and are struggling to solidify support.

"It's the secret office for the secret bill," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., proclaimed to reporters after being denied entry to the ground floor room where he said the measure was being shown to some lawmakers. An aide to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., later said Paul was standing outside her office, not a hideaway for clandestine legislation.

With Republican leaders hoping to unveil the legislation next week, part of the measure is being shown privately to GOP lawmakers without distributing copies. Party leaders often closely hold major bills while striking final compromises, but this was an unusually stealthy move aimed at preventing leaks of the measure, which would replace much of former President Barack Obama's health care overhaul with Republican proposals.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., who is letting panel Republicans see his portion of the measure, issued a statement that flashed his pique. He said assertions his committee "is doing anything other than the regular process of keeping its members up to speed on latest developments in its jurisdictions are false."

Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, whose House Ways and Means Committee is writing other provisions, noted he and Walden had briefed senators including Paul on Wednesday.

"Clearly every senator in that room knows exactly the direction we're going," Brady told reporters.

The secrecy surrounding the House draft presented a golden publicity opportunity to Paul, who like some other conservatives says the GOP plan doesn't go far enough in dismantling Obama's law.

"This is being presented as if this were a national secret, as if this were a plot to invade another country," Paul told camera crews and reporters his office had alerted to his quest.

In an interview this week with NBC's "Today" show, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Republican leaders were "not hatching some bill in a backroom and plopping it on the American people's front door."

Also launching pursuit were No. 2 House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and other Democrats, who rummaged through the Capitol and a nearby House office building. Parts of their expeditions were streamed on social media.

At one point, Reps. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., were turned away from the offices of Walden and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., claimed to have checked the men's room.

"They don't want us to see the bill," said Pallone.

Thursday's histrionics came as Ryan and other GOP leaders try delivering on one of their and President Donald Trump's top political priorities, despite lingering disputes.

At a closed-door conference, Ryan told Republicans that leaders would draft the overhaul legislation this weekend. Lawmakers have said the goal is for the two House committees to vote next week in hopes of pushing the legislation through the House and to the Senate before an early April recess.

One conservative foe, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., said leaders pushed lawmakers hard Thursday to back the bill. He said leaders showed clips of Trump's congressional address on Tuesday, when he embraced key principles of the GOP plan.

This was "very unconvincing," said Massie.

One of the most contentious remaining disputes is a new tax sought by Ryan on part of the value of expensive employer-provided medical plans. Many Republicans are reluctant to vote for a tax increase — a reliable way to invite challengers in primary elections.

Many conservatives oppose a proposed tax credit that would be even for people who owe no taxes and is based on age, not income. Brady said he's considering whether to "target" the credit, but didn't say how.

Obama's law expanded Medicaid to more lower-income people, a move that 31 states accepted, along with billions in added federal payments to cover it. The GOP plan would provide money for those states and for the 19 states, mostly run by Republicans, that didn't expand Medicaid.

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AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner contributed to this report.