Frenzy builds as tax legislation nears
Trump courts former foe Ted Cruz
President Trump appears to be courting Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), his onetime rival, to help sell the House's healthcare plan to conservatives in Congress.
The president and first lady Melania Trump hosted Cruz, wife Heidi, and their two children for dinner at the White House on Wednesday evening. The social occasion could help smooth over any lingering tension from their nasty 2016 primary.
That race hit a low point when Trump accused Cruz's father of consorting with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before he assassinated President Kennedy. In response, Cruz called Trump "utterly amoral" and a "pathological liar."
Now Trump and Cruz are hoping to bury the hatchet, as the GOP agenda hangs in the balance.
"I'm very much looking forward to it. It is principally a social dinner, but I'm sure the discussion will turn to the repeal of ObamaCare," Cruz told reporters.
The administration recognizes Cruz is a prominent national figure who carries weight with the conservative movement. His former chief of staff, Paul Teller, is serving as Trump's liaison to conservative lawmakers on the Hill.
Those same House conservatives who Cruz mobilized in 2013 to fight the implementation of ObamaCare now need to be sold on the new House GOP plan to repeal and replace it - the American Health Care Act - which some critics on the right have panned as " ObamaCare lite."
Cruz says the House plan cannot pass the Senate as drafted, but he thinks it can be changed to win his support.
"I have serious concerns about the House bill as drafted. I do not believe the House bill as currently drafted would pass the Senate. But I also believe it can be fixed," he said. "We can make it better."
Cruz says Congress should start with the language of the 2015 repeal bill, which Republicans passed and President Obama vetoed, and "build up from there using areas of consensus, areas that bring Republicans together."
He said language should be added to the House bill that would repeal the mandate on insurance companies to provide coverage regardless of pre-existing medical conditions.
He also called for provisions allowing people to purchase insurance across state lines, expanding health savings accounts and creating healthcare "portability" so that people can keep their insurance plans even if they lose their jobs.
He said the language in the House bill capping ObamaCare's Medicaid expansion starting in 2020 "makes no sense."
"At a minimum we should freeze that population rather than encouraging more and more people to be jammed into a system that is failing under its own weight," he said.
Republican senators who criticized Cruz in the past for what they perceived as his selfish behavior said he could be crucial in persuading conservatives to embrace the House GOP leadership's proposal, which is already drawing fire from the far-right House Freedom Caucus.
"Cruz is big," said a Republican senator, who requested anonymity to discuss internal party strategy.
The lawmaker said moderates such as Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) have not ruled out supporting the House plan, although they have raised concerns.
"Collins sounded like she could get there," the lawmaker said.
Conservative Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) were much more adamant in their opposition, blasting the legislation earlier this week as a "bailout for the insurance companies" and a "missed opportunity."
Cruz surprised some Senate Republicans this week with his low-key response to the House Republican plan. He skipped a press conference Paul and Lee held with House conservatives Tuesday to criticize the legislation.
Cruz told reporters that while he had concerns, "the proper way to address those concerns is working with colleagues in the House, the Senate and the administration."
If Cruz joined Paul and Lee, he could sink the House bill, because Republicans control 52 seats in the Senate and can only afford two defections, assuming Vice President Pence breaks a 50-50 tie. No Democrats are expected to vote for the legislation.
For Cruz, the cautious approach is a 180-degree turn from the 2013 healthcare debate, when his collaboration with rebellious House conservatives set in motion a 16-day government shutdown. Some Republicans were incensed over what they saw as Cruz's grandstanding and refusal to be a team player.
Republican senators at the time were angry that Cruz held out for an outcome they viewed as impossible: that Obama would agree to a government funding measure that halted the implementation of his signature healthcare initiative. They thought Cruz was aiming to raise his national profile and prepare for a presidential run.
He fell short of his White House ambitions last year when Trump beat him decisively in the primary.
Cruz suffered an embarrassing moment at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland when delegates booed him off the stage after he declined to endorse Trump in a prime-time speech.
Now Cruz finds himself in an altogether different set of political circumstances. He is up for reelection in 2018 and faces a possible primary challenge - perhaps from House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) - and Democrats are looking for a quality candidate to take him on in the general election such as Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas).
Given Trump's popularity in Texas, the GOP establishment's negative view of Cruz in recent years and the high energy of the Democratic base since Election Day, Cruz's reelection is not a slam dunk.
Senate Republican sources think Cruz could strengthen his political position by helping Trump fulfill the party's promise to repeal and replace ObamaCare.
"This is the guy who blocked and stopped everything, and that didn't work. Maybe this re-invention is aimed at making himself look constructive," said a Senate GOP aide. "Knowing Cruz, political calculations are almost certainly at the forefront of his calculation."
If Cruz can be convinced to support the repeal-and-replace plan, Republican leaders could have a chance to bring along his friend Lee. The two were spotted in deep conversation after the Wednesday Senate Republican Steering Committee lunch.
Lee said the House bill could be improved on the Senate floor.
"Where there's an amendment process, any bill can be improved and any bill can be made better and palatable to conservatives," Lee said.
But some Republicans aren't yet buying into the idea that Cruz could emerge as the savior of the healthcare effort.
"I think you have to ask him, and I'll wait and see what the results are," Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) said of Cruz. "We need all the senators we can, because this is a team effort. Unless we have 51, we're not going to be able to keep our promises."