President Trump and GOP leaders are pulling out all the stops to win over House conservatives to their ObamaCare replacement bill ahead of a crucial up-or-down vote scheduled for Thursday.
At press time, it appeared that Trump still lacked the votes in the House, but late-breaking developments suggested a deal that could win over House Freedom Caucus members was possible.
Trump promised a group of 18 GOP lawmakers at the White House that he would support an amendment in the Senate that would repeal ObamaCare’s essential health benefits.
That pledge, which also included a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell says he made 'inadvertent omission' in voting remarks amid backlash These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 WATCH: The Hill recaps the top stories of the week MORE (R-Ky.), lawmakers said, was enough to bring on board a key conservative, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
Conservatives have been demanding the change to these rules, which mandate what insurance plans must cover. By repealing them, conservatives say, healthcare premiums would be lowered.
The problem is that the language does not deal directly with federal revenue, meaning it may not be covered by special budgetary rules that GOP leaders are using to move their ObamaCare bill. In the Senate, the rules would prevent a Democratic filibuster and allow a bill to be approved with a simple majority. Without the rules, the legislation is unlikely to survive a Senate procedural vote requiring 60 votes.
It is not certain that the deal offered by Trump would be enough to win over the Freedom Caucus members, but it is also possible that the White House could go further by adding language on the essential health benefits directly to the House bill.
This would raise questions about how the legislation would move forward in the Senate, but it could get the GOP over the hump in the House.
Rep Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the conservative group’s chairman, said Wednesday night he and Trump have reached an "agreement in principle."
“I think what we're trying to do now is make sure that our agreement is actually something that can be executed in a way that passes the Senate,” he said on Fox News' "Hannity." “There's still work to be done, but I can tell you that the president is all engaged."
Meadows said Trump has been the crucial factor in negotiations and even called him personally during a Freedom Caucus meeting Monday night.
Earlier on Wednesday, Trump appeared to be on a collision course with the Freedom Caucus.
After a series of meetings, Meadows vowed that they had enough votes to defeat the measure and called on leadership to “start over.”
Trump and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow Kevin McCarthy sold his soul to Donald Trump On The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood Stopping the next insurrection MORE (R-Wis.), however, signaled they had no intention of calling the vote off, effectively daring Freedom Caucus members to vote against their president, who has said he is 100 percent behind the House bill.
House leadership is banking on Trump’s influence. Ryan told Fox News Wednesday that Trump is “closing the deal.”
Many conservatives represent districts won handily in the 2016 election by Trump, who warned them this week that they would lose in the midterm elections of 2018 if they fail to back the GOP healthcare bill.
Trump’s comments were widely interpreted as a threat that he could come after Republicans who oppose the bill.
Republicans also face challenges because of opposition to the healthcare bill from centrists worried that it will leave millions of Americans without health insurance.
Late Wednesday, co-chair of the centrist Tuesday Group Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) announced that he would vote against the bill.
"I believe this bill, in its current form, will lead to the loss of coverage and make insurance unaffordable for too many Americans, particularly for low-to-moderate income and older individuals," Dent said. "We have an important opportunity to enact reforms that will result in real health care transformation--bringing down costs and improving health outcomes. This legislation misses the mark."
Rep. Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.), who represents parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn, also said he couldn’t support the bill largely because of a New York-specific provision that he said negatively impacted his constituents. And longtime Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), usually a reliable leadership ally, also said he would oppose the measure. He even said that ObamaCare is better than the current GOP bill and warned of people losing coverage.
“Simply put, this bill does not meet the standards of what was promised; it is not as good as or better than what we currently have,” LoBiondo said in a statement.
Republican leaders and Trump appear focused for now on winning over conservatives.
GOP lawmakers acknowledge a floor meltdown on legislation meant to fulfill one of their key campaign promises would be a major embarrassment for the party. But they are also implicitly warning the Republicans that voting against the bill would be injuring their own president.
“I think it would be very damaging. I think it’s a big blow to the president, who’s 100 percent behind this bill,” said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), a member of the House GOP whip team. “It’d be a terrific setback to our leadership.”
Many members said Wednesday that they would not announce their decision on the healthcare bill until the moment it hits the floor. A whip list kept by The Hill showed more than three dozen members as either no votes, leaning no or uncertain.
The lobbying effort by Trump and GOP leaders is in overdrive.
During House votes Wednesday afternoon, Ryan, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and other top Republicans scoured the chamber floor in an ongoing effort to sway the holdouts.
Ryan spent several minutes in an animated conversation with Freedom Caucus member Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), both lawmakers gesticulating to make their point. Scalise huddled for a time with Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), among others. And Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) trained his focus on Dent.
The furious whipping campaign was not overlooked by amused Democrats. At one point, Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) looked up to reporters in the gallery, pointed over to McCarthy, who was talking to a group on the floor, and offered some advice to the journalists.
“That’s the picture,” Walz said with a smile.
Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said he’s “trying to get to yes,” but his support hinges on the elimination of the essential benefits package.
Asked about the Freedom Caucus’s claim that there are not enough votes, Ryan said on Fox News Wednesday, “I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that.”
“There’s a claim that there’s 24 votes against it — we’re getting a lot of Freedom Caucus members to support this bill,” Ryan said. “We’ve been adding Freedom Caucus votes to this bill all week.”
“We’re adding votes by the day,” Ryan added. “We’re not losing votes, we’re adding votes, and we feel like we’re getting really, really close.”
Cristina Marcos contributed. Updated at 11:50 p.m.