Trump plays hardball on ObamaCare repeal

President Trump on Wednesday admonished Republican senators over their stalled healthcare push and demanded they resume work on a bill to repeal and replace ObamaCare, setting up a last-ditch attempt to avoid an embarrassing defeat.

Trump invited Republican senators to the White House for lunch a day after their healthcare legislation appeared dead, telling lawmakers they should not leave Washington before reaching a solution, even if it means scrapping their already-delayed August recess.

“Frankly, I don't think we should leave town unless we have a health insurance plan,” the president said at the start of the lunch in the State Dining Room. “Because we're close; we're very close.” 

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The president’s public tongue-lashing appeared to produce results. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPolitical figures pay tribute to Charles Krauthammer Charles Krauthammer dies at the age of 68 Overnight Energy: EPA declines to write new rule for toxic spills | Senate blocks move to stop Obama water rule | EPA bought 'tactical' pants and polos MORE (R-Ky.) said after the luncheon that he would forge ahead with the repeal-and-replace negotiations.

“Next week, we’ll be voting on the motion to proceed, and I have every expectation that we’ll be able to get on the bill," McConnell told reporters on the White House driveway.

But success is far from guaranteed. Following the meeting, it wasn’t immediately clear whether McConnell would move to a straight repeal of ObamaCare — something the White House had urged earlier in the week — or the repeal-and-replace bill. As of Wednesday, both measures lacked the votes necessary to advance. 

Three top Trump administration officials — Vice President Pence, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma — were scheduled to meet Wednesday evening on Capitol Hill with fence-sitting GOP senators to discuss a path forward.

McConnell repeatedly refused to say if he would cancel recess to continue work on healthcare.

The initial collapse of the repeal-and-replace plan was a major failure for both Trump and McConnell and sparked mutual recriminations on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, including complaints from senators that the president did little to sell the initiative.

Trump on Wednesday appeared hell-bent on making up for lost time. As television cameras rolled, the president personally challenged GOP senators to get on board, reminding them of their campaign promises to overturn President Obama’s signature healthcare law.

He seated himself next to Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerTreasury gave special designation to Nevada county after GOP lobbying: report The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — Immigration drama grips Washington The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — GOP lawmakers race to find an immigration fix MORE (R-Nev.), a vulnerable incumbent who opposed the legislation, and ticked off what he said were the benefits of the plan, promising it would stabilize individual insurance markets and lower premiums by “60 and 70 percent.”

Trump made it clear that he isn’t afraid to use strong-arm tactics to persuade the holdouts. 

“Look, he wants to remain a senator, doesn't he?” Trump said of Heller. “I think the people of your state, which I know very well, I think they're going to appreciate what you hopefully will do.”

The president added, “Any senator who votes against starting debate is really telling America that you're fine with ObamaCare.”

Heller appeared to take the ribbing in stride, tilting his head back and chuckling.

"That’s just President Trump being President Trump,” Heller told reporters at the Capitol following the lunch.

Trump also took a swipe at Sens. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranFormer USA Gymnastics CEO pleads Fifth at hearing GOP, Trump at odds on pardon power Lawmakers request meeting with Amtrak CEO over funding for route MORE (R-Kan.) and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Energy: EPA declines to write new rule for toxic spills | Senate blocks move to stop Obama water rule | EPA bought 'tactical' pants and polos Senate blocks bid to stop Obama water rule GOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border MORE (R-Utah), the two conservatives who announced their opposition to the repeal-and-replace bill Monday night, stopping it dead in its tracks.

“The other night I was surprised when I heard a couple of my friends — my friends, they really were and are. They might not be very much longer, but that's OK,” he said.

While the president seemed recommitted to using the bully pulpit to advance the healthcare effort, it’s unclear whether it will be enough to get wavering senators behind a bill that is deeply unpopular with the public. 

Only 17 percent of Americans approve of the Senate GOP legislation, while 55 percent disapprove, according to a late June NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed the measure had only 12 percent support in key counties won by Trump in 2016. 

Trump’s own approval rating has plummeted — down to only 36 percent in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll — raising the possibility that vulnerable senators such as Heller will feel emboldened to ignore his pleas. 

The president has offered mixed messages on healthcare, and his demand on Wednesday for a repeal-and-replace bill may have added even more confusion to the process.

Just one day earlier, he said that Republicans in Congress should simply abandon their legislative effort and “let Obamacare fail.”

That came after a Monday tweet in which Trump appeared to endorse the repeal-without-replace option.

“Republicans should just REPEAL failing ObamaCare now & work on a new Healthcare Plan that will start from a clean slate. Dems will join in!” he wrote.

White House legislative director Marc Short denied that Trump’s message has been inconsistent.

“I think the president has been clear that what he wants is repeal and replace,” he said, adding that the president believes that if that doesn’t work, “we should at least deliver on the promise to repeal.”

Short said that during the lunch, “there was a general enthusiasm for recognizing that this is not something we can walk away from.” 

But senators acknowledged that they still face a heavy lift.

"It is ... sort of revived," Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRepublicans agree — it’s only a matter of time for Scott Pruitt Senate moving ahead with border bill, despite Trump On The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Senators hammers Ross on Trump tariffs | EU levies tariffs on US goods | Senate rejects Trump plan to claw back spending MORE (R-S.D.) said of the repeal-and-replace bill. "I think we don't have any delusions about the fact that this is going to be very hard and we still have members who are not there yet.”

Peter Sullivan and Nathaniel Weixel contributed.