WASHINGTON ― The Trump White House is done negotiating over repealing and replacing Obamacare, senior officials said Thursday night, and Republicans are moving ahead with a vote on their bill Friday, even though they seem to lack enough support for passage and recalcitrant conservatives and moderates continued talking.
Tension boiled over in a meeting between top administration officials ― including top strategist Steve Bannon and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus ― and Republican lawmakers hours after House leadership delayed a scheduled vote on their health care legislation Thursday. President Donald Trump, according to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, is done negotiating, and House Republicans are scheduled to vote Friday. If the vote fails, Mulvaney said, the president was prepared to leave Obamacare in place.
In calling the bluff of on-the-fence lawmakers, Trump runs a massive risk of violating a primary campaign pledge to repeal Obamacare and suffering a major legislative defeat in his first effort to pass major legislation. While many Republicans have been arguing that failure to repeal Obamacare would sink the president’s entire agenda ― and likely hand Congress to the Democrats in 2018 ― Mulvaney signaled that the administration didn’t intend to give up on other plans, and would move onto an ambitious tax reform effort if the repeal bid failed.
Chances are fairly high that Trump will have his bluff called, as the conservative bloc of House members continued to insist the bill fell short of the promised full repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who chairs the House Freedom Caucus, left the meeting with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and administration officials saying that negotiations continue precisely because his group was not yet on board with the final product.
And then Mulvaney said the time for deals was over.
That looked to be a clear signal of failure, but there are, at least, some indications that Freedom Caucus conservatives could be split.
Meadows reported Thursday night that, while he was still leaning no, there are a number of conservative wins in the new legislation, including the elimination of “essential health benefits” that require insurers to cover basic health care services. There also were certain “assurances” that the president and his staff made that could persuade conservatives, he added, though he wouldn’t elaborate.
When Meadows was asked about Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, and how walking away from a negotiation was textbook Trump, Meadows said that in order to get the best deal, “you always have to be ready to walk away from any negotiation.”
“Yeah, I read his book too,” Meadows said, acknowledging that “the bill has improved.”
What conservatives view as improvements, however, are clear losses for moderates. A large bloc of rank-and-file Republicans could flee from the bill, especially if it’s clear by Friday afternoon that Republicans, as is likely, don’t have the votes for passage.
The Freedom Caucus is meeting late Thursday night to discuss where members stand, but if they follow through on promises to oppose it without more of their demands being met, they can sink the bill and motivate moderates to oppose it as well.
There are still a number of Republicans sitting on the fence, but once it’s clear the bill would lose, more members may decide to vote no.
In a sign of just how deep the uncertainty in the GOP ranks runs, Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) told HuffPost Thursday night after the special conference meeting that he was undecided.
The legislation that was to be put to a vote Thursday was said to be a take-it-or-leave-it, final offer from the White House. It contained clear conservative wins, including the elimination of essential benefits such as maternity care and mental illness treatment. It also was meant to appease those centrist Republicans concerned too many people will be tossed from the health insurance rolls, by keeping a 0.9 percent Medicare surcharge tax from the Affordable Care Act on high-income earners for six years. That would add about $15 billion to a fund to help states defray costs.
Despite the bill’s dire straits, the mood Thursday night in the GOP conference meeting was positive, and many members left hopeful, even confident.
“We didn’t even discuss votes,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), one of the biggest boosters for the repeal and Trump’s first supporter in Congress. “This was a plea, one-on-one-on-one, for the entire conference to come together as a team, to look in the mirror, understand we are the governing body.”
A procedural vote was expected at 10 a.m. Friday, followed by a vote on passage of the bill in the afternoon.