The Memo: Trump faces enormous test with healthcare bill

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President Trump’s powers of persuasion were tested Tuesday afternoon as he met with Republican senators at the White House just hours after GOP leaders decided to postpone a pivotal vote on healthcare legislation.

The high-powered huddle came as one GOP strategist with close ties to the White House told The Hill that Trump had not yet fully engaged with the effort to pass a bill in the upper chamber.

{mosads}The reason for hesitancy, the source said, was the realization that a delay was always likely in the ongoing effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare. 

“They don’t want to put the president’s capital in jeopardy if the bill is not going to go anywhere,” the source explained. “You want to put the president in a position to get credit for victory, not blame for defeat or delay.”

Other allies of the president said that he was expected to use the weight of his office to bring reluctant GOP senators on board at some point. But they cautioned that he was not necessarily going to get deep into the weeds of legislative language. 

“The biggest issue is just to let the process play out,” said Sam Nunberg, who worked as an aide on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “Sometimes you don’t want to be too overbearing. You are not legislator in chief, you’re commander in chief.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) paid tribute of a kind to Trump’s involvement when speaking with reporters on Tuesday afternoon, asserting that he had in fact put his shoulder to the wheel.

“The president’s been very involved over the last week talking to members individually,” McConnell said. “He wanted to talk to all of us together today; I think that’s helpful. 

“We always anticipated the president would be very important to getting us to a conclusion,” he added. “In the earlier stages it would have, candidly, been a waste of his time.” 

The key question is whether the time is right for Trump to make a final push.

The decision to postpone a vote came amid deep GOP discontent with the proposed legislation — and with its potential political ramifications. 

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) assessment released on Monday afternoon may have been the final nail in the coffin for hopes of the bill getting passed this week. The CBO projected that the legislation would leave 22 million more Americans without healthcare within a decade, compared to the current law.

Five GOP senators had indicated, with varying degrees of firmness, that they would not even vote to proceed to a debate on the bill: Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Dean Heller (Nev.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Rand Paul (Ky.). 

Other GOP members, including Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), have expressed serious misgivings about the underlying legislation.

McConnell was left with little option but to hold off on a vote in the hope that some form of words can be found to bind together the GOP’s center-right voices and its conservative firebrands.

The postponement is a serious setback to Trump. His own belief in the likelihood of a bill securing final passage seemed to wax and wane almost by the minute on Tuesday.

He appeared bullish on his way into the afternoon meeting with senators at the White House, saying that the GOP was “very close” to an agreement on legislation and that the resulting bill “is going to be great.”

But Trump also said on camera that he would not like it if the Senate failed to pass legislation on healthcare but “that’s okay.”

One key problem that Trump and the GOP face is time. The Republican plans are unpopular with the public. An NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll conducted within the past two weeks found that just 16 percent of adults nationwide considered the GOP’s proposals a “good idea,” while 48 percent believed the opposite. 

Liberal groups opposed to the plan are sure to use the recess to intensify the pressure on Republican senators over the proposed legislation. Republican members could face the kind of town hall protests that unnerved their Democratic counterparts when the debate over the ACA was at its most intense.

Some Republicans argue that the president has a part to play in trying to neutralize attacks from opponents of the bill.   

“He has either got to fill [the recess] up with a pro-healthcare message or at least distract people from healthcare. He has got to be on offense during the recess so that members don’t get spooked,” said GOP strategist John Feehery, who is also a columnist for The Hill.

However, Feehery is skeptical of the strategy employed by America First Policies, an outside group that seeks to advance Trump’s agenda. 

The group launched an ad campaign against Heller, one of the GOP moderates poised to vote against the current bill. America First Policies has been reported to be considering similar assaults against other would-be opponents. 

“It’s important not to freeze people,” Feehery asserted. “You don’t want to put these senators in a box that they can’t get out of.” He added that running ads against them could trigger counterproductive effects.

The source close to the White House argued that, while Trump had not yet committed to a full court press on the bill, the time for that was bound to arrive sooner or later — and, specifically, before Congress breaks for a longer recess in August.

“There will need to be a product,” the source said. “Members cannot go home empty-handed having failed to keep a promise.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Dean Heller Donald Trump Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Ron Johnson Susan Collins Ted Cruz
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