Behind closed doors, tensions in the GOP

The White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Overnight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria Senate to vote Monday on Trump's VA nominee MORE (R-Ky.) are using a soft sell on Republicans as they try to save legislation repealing and replacing ObamaCare.

McConnell told colleagues at a closed-door meeting on Tuesday that they would not vote on the healthcare bill this week, as GOP leaders had been promising for weeks.

He dispelled the tension in the room near the start of the meeting by announcing the change in plans — a dramatic turnaround, given his desire to pass the measure before the July 4 recess.

He delivered the news without a trace of drama, according to people in the room.

ADVERTISEMENT
“Mitch is the most even-keel person,” said one Republican senator.

The decision to delay the vote immediately lightened the mood in the Senate GOP conference, where lawmakers felt pressured to make a decision on an extremely complex bill before they had time to fully review it and get input from constituents.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonJuan Williams: Putin wins as GOP spins GOP senator: Harley-Davidson is right to move some production overseas GOP senator: Trump’s policies doing 'permanent damage' MORE (R-Wis.), who threatened to vote against the motion to proceed this week, indicated Tuesday that he could come around to supporting the legislation after having more time to examine it.

The GOP leader also showed no frustration or impatience with rebels who threatened to vote against a procedural motion to begin debate on healthcare as he outlined a plan for new discussions.

At the same time, he emphasized that the talks cannot drag on endlessly and urged fellow senators to negotiate in good faith and be willing to give ground.

“He said, ‘We’re going to keep on talking, but we need to get an outcome and people need to engage,’ ” said one senator who attended the meeting.

Vice President Pence aided McConnell, assuring rank-and-file senators that the administration is open to listening to their suggestions on revamping the legislation.

He showed the lawmakers a video of himself meeting with a group of citizens seated around a table talking about the hardships created by ObamaCare and the need to reform it, according to two sources in the meeting.

The gentle approach comes amid increasing tensions over the healthcare bill.

An organization backing President Trump aired television and radio ads in Nevada attacking Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerSenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Jacky Rosen hits Dean Heller over health care in first negative ad GOP moderates hint at smooth confirmation ahead for Kavanaugh MORE, the most vulnerable Republican up for reelection next year and a senator who opposed the current healthcare bill. McConnell, whose hopes of growing his Senate majority depend on a Heller victory next year, was almost certainly fuming over the ads.

The tone at the opening of Trump’s White House meeting with GOP senators on Tuesday was different. The president pressed for the senators to do away with ObamaCare for the good of the country, but added that if the bill fails, “it’s just going to be something that we’re not going to like, and that’s OK and I understand that very well.”

There is skepticism, even within McConnell’s leadership team, that a Senate ObamaCare repeal bill can win the votes of 50 Republican senators, which would be the bare minimum for passage, allowing Pence to break a tie.

McConnell has had 30 meetings with colleagues to discuss healthcare reform since May 2, and there are doubts over how much new ground there is left to plow.

Every concession to a conservative Republican risks losing a centrist and vice versa.

“I think some substantive concerns that people have — some of them can be addressed and some of them can’t,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenators share their fascination with sharks at hearing Helsinki summit becomes new flashpoint for GOP anger Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash MORE (S.D.).

“Sometimes when you make a change over here, it’s like a zero-sum game. ... [But] there may be some discrete changes that we can make to the bill that satisfy some of the concerns,” Thune added. 

McConnell made it clear after the White House meeting with Trump, however, that he does not want to work with Democrats on healthcare legislation. He believes this would give too much power to the minority and lead to a bill that conservatives could not support.

In the closed-door meeting, the GOP lawmaker said McConnell stressed the importance of an “iterative process” in which conservatives and moderates could make small strides to a compromise with each round of negotiation.

He told colleagues that he hopes they can reach a deal on revising the legislation by the end of the week so that it can be scored by the Congressional Budget Office over the July 4 recess, setting up a vote the following week when lawmakers come back to town.

“We are going to press on,” he told reporters after the meeting. “We think the status quo is unsustainable for all the obvious reasons we have discussed over and over and over again.

“And we are optimistic we are going to get to a result that’s better than the status quo,” he added.

Jordain Carney and Peter Sullivan contributed.