WASHINGTON ― Conservatives are questioning where the White House stands on the GOP health care bill, with House Freedom Caucus members saying late Tuesday that the Trump administration isn’t wedded to the the legislation ― which they say can’t pass anyway.
Exiting a meeting with former Freedom Caucus member Mick Mulvaney, the Office of Management and Budget director, conservatives suggested the White House isn’t completely sold on the Republican House bill advancing through committees on Wednesday.
“If you look at all the comments from the White House, you will find there is a mixed message,” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said Tuesday night.
Brooks made it clear there’s no mixed message coming from him. He’s strongly opposed to the so-called American Health Care Act ― “the largest welfare program sponsored in the history of the Republican Party,” in Brooks’ words. Yet he poured on the praise for President Donald Trump’s OMB director and the message he delivered Tuesday night.
“Mr. Mulvaney was persuasive,” Brooks said.
“He informed us of the White House’s position,” he added, getting cagey about what was actually said.
Other members were less enigmatic about the meeting. They said Mulvaney’s message was just that the White House was open to seeing what Republicans could produce, that the administration wouldn’t try to shut down the process, and that Trump didn’t care whose repeal and replace measure ultimately passes ― just that one does.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C), the Freedom Caucus chairman, said Mulvaney let them know that they’re still open to negotiations.
“We heard that directly from him,” Meadows added. “This is not something that is in stone.”
Meadows insisted that the message had been consistent all day Tuesday. “The White House is willing to negotiate,” he said.
Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), who sits on the Ways and Means Committee marking up a portion of the legislation on Wednesday, suggested Mulvaney’s message was for Republicans to just repeal and replace Obamacare.
“It wasn’t that prescriptive,” Schweikert said. “It was very clear we need to do the elimination of the current model and move to something else, but the something else? It wasn’t prescriptive.”
Of course, that was not the lesson GOP leadership had taken from their meetings with Trump and other administration officials on Tuesday. Chief deputy whip Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) told The Washington Post that the president was paying attention to where Republicans stood on the GOP health care bill.
“The president said very clearly . . . this is the bill he wants on his desk, and he wants to get this done quickly,” McHenry reportedly said.
No matter what hidden messages conservatives are seeing in the tweets and in their private meetings, Trump could swiftly end the speculation by offering his full-throated support.
But that was not what conservatives were hearing Tuesday.
“What I have heard from the president, from the vice president, from the director tonight, is that they’re open to negotiation,” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said. “So I find it a little bit intriguing when I hear our leadership say that they have a bill, a set bill, and the president is fully supportive of the bill. I think he is fully supportive of the process.”
“You have to be open to negotiating and not just cramming it down our throats.”
Labrador was certain the current Republican bill did not have the requisite 218 votes for a majority in the House ― or slightly less, given vacancies and potential absences ― and he didn’t think Republicans could get over the majority threshold with just small changes to the existing bill.
“I don’t think there’s any tinkering that will get us to 218,” Labrador said. “But I think some major reforms to the health care problems that we have right now, an actual repeal and replace of the problems that we have right now, I think we can get there.”
Conservatives want leadership to put forward the repeal bill that the House passed in 2015. In fact, the Freedom Caucus has taken an official position ― supposedly binding for their roughly 40 members ― that they will oppose any repeal bill less aggressive than the previous reconciliation language. There are signs that HFC leaders are now willing to negotiate on that position, but they now appear willing to sink the House health care plan if leaders don’t significantly open up the measure for discussion.
“You have to be open to negotiating and not just cramming it down our throats,” Labrador said.
But between GOP moderates who are concerned a repeal would significantly affect poor people ― the elimination of the Medicaid expansion has become a fault line in the Republican Party ― and conservatives who insist the entire “Obamacare framework” needs to be removed, in the words of Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), there might not exist a coalition of 218 Republicans in the House and 50 Republicans in the Senate.
And while Labrador acknowledged that everything had to be on the table in a negotiation between conservatives and GOP leadership, he also expressed his opposition to the Medicaid expansion and the advance refundable tax credits which have become the linchpin to the replacement.
Asked what a happy middle ground may be between the conservative healthcare bill and leadership’s, Labrador inadvertently summed up the conservative position on negotiating.
“I think our plan,” he answered.