President Donald Trump is moving to quiet conservative opposition to the House GOP Obamacare replacement, drawing on his newfound bully pulpit to pressure but also coax rebellious lawmakers.
Trump on Tuesday night turned his massive Twitter following on one of the most vocal opponents of the repeal bill: conservative firebrand Sen. Rand Paul. The Kentucky Republican had blasted Speaker Paul Ryan’s Obamacare alternative as “Obamacare-lite.” But Trump tweeted, “I feel sure that my friend @RandPaul will come along with the new and great health care program because he knows Obamacare is a disaster!”
Trump also told a group of 20 House GOP whips that he would use all the powers in his Oval Office arsenal to get the GOP alternative over the finish line, and he vowed to summon to the White House opponents of the bill.
“This meeting was a confirmation from the president that he will do what’s necessary and will have our backs,” said Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), one whip in the meeting. “He basically said whatever we need him to do … he’ll do that, because it’s really, as Mike Pence said, is a binary choice: You vote to keep Obamacare or you vote to repeal it.”
But Trump’s whip-in-chief operation isn’t all stick. The White House dispatched budget director Mick Mulvaney to a closed-door meeting of House conservatives Tuesday night to reassure the health plan’s harshest critics that the details aren’t set in stone. Mulvaney, a former House Freedom Caucus member himself, told the HFC that the White House is open to changes and encouraged them to try to amend the bill to their liking in committee and on the floor.
“I think the message has been consistent throughout the day is that White House is willing to negotiate,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), leader of the Freedom Caucus, after the meeting.
Trump’s move to save the repeal effort couldn’t come at a better time for House GOP leaders. Conservative groups from Club for Growth to The Heritage Foundation joined House and Senate conservatives Tuesday blasting the bill as Obamacare in a different form.
At the crux of the president’s involvement is a frustration that the bill hasn’t moved yet amid GOP infighting. He told the House GOP whips that “we’ve been promising for years to repeal Obamacare and now we have the chance to get it done,” according to Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.), one whip in the room.
“He used the phrase several times, ‘No more excuses; it’s time to get it passed,’” Messer said. “He gave every indication he will be very active in the effort to pass this bill.”
Trump’s involvement is a welcome development for House GOP leadership, who have been crossing their fingers that Trump will use his massive microphone to help them get the bill “across the finish-line,” as one leadership source said.
They left their meeting at the White House Tuesday afternoon feeling satisfied that he’d do just that. During the powwow — which included Trump’s top advisers, from Steve Bannon to Kellyanne Conway to Reince Priebus — Republicans made a point of telling Trump that the conservatives threatening to tank the proposal are big Trump supporters. They encouraged him to reach out, suggesting a little face-time would go a long way.
Trump said he’d do that.
“My sense is he’s willing to engage members of the House and Senate on meaningful conversations,” said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), another whip in the room. “He can tweet, he can bring folks over, he can engage in whatever way he wants to — and I suspect he will. … He wants this done.”
One Republican in the room put it more bluntly: “Some of these [HFC] guys are used to punching leadership in the nose and being praised for it back home. Are you going to punch Trump in the nose? I don’t think so.”
At the same time, Trump isn’t putting his foot down in demanding that GOP leadership stick to the current bill. Trump instructed the deputy whips “several times” that “if someone has constructive suggestions that make the bill better, let them have at it,” summarized one source in the room.
Rep. Dave Schweikert, the lone member of the Freedom Caucus on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said Mulvaney made the same pitch when he showed up unannounced at the HFC meeting Tuesday night.
“If you have other creative things, the White House will look at that, too,” he summarized, adding that Mulvaney conveyed that the choice wouldn’t be “binary” between the leadership bill and the current system.
Conservatives plan to take him up on that offer. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said, “Right now, the speaker of the House does not have the votes to pass this bill unless it’s got substantial Democrat support.”
They insist, however, they haven’t eased their positions: They still support a full repeal of Obamacare, followed by a separate vote to replace it. And they’re vowing, as before, not to back down — at least not tonight.
Asked whether Mulvaney praised the House bill or urged the HFC to support it, Meadows seemed almost gleeful to say no, he hadn’t.
By: Rachael Bade and Kyle Cheney