“The closer,” it turns out, needs extra innings.
After a frenetic 48 hours of Oval Office lobbying sessions, closed-door talks in the Cabinet room and shuttle diplomacy on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Donald Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the plug Thursday on a scheduled vote on their health care legislation after falling short of the support needed for passage.
Conservative House hardliners would not budge on their demanded concessions. Moderate Republicans grew skittish of the new proposed changes. And, as the morning turned to afternoon without an accord on final legislative language, Republicans fretted about the optics of jamming the far-reaching bill through in the middle of the night.
The White House had pushed aggressively to hold the vote Thursday. Trump, who has staked his reputation as a consummate dealmaker on getting the bill through, was telling reporters “today the House is voting to repeal and replace the disaster known as Obamacare” minutes before House leadership canceled the vote.
But it was clear that he was struggling to get his fellow Republicans to yes.
“I’m not going to make it too long, because I have to get votes,” Trump told a group of truckers who were at the White House Thursday afternoon. “I don’t want to spend too much time with you. I’m going to lose by one vote and then I’m going to blame the truckers.”
The final straw for a Thursday deal was a lengthy White House meeting between Trump, his top lieutenants and the hardliner House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservatives who have pushed to strip requirements that insurance companies provide standard benefits such as maternity care in coverage plans.
They couldn’t reach a deal, forcing the White House into a one-by-one effort to turn votes that one senior administration official described as “grinding.”
“Member by member, that’s how they’re going to vote,” said White House spokesman Sean Spicer said on Thursday, a day after describing the president as “the closer.”
Most Republicans appeared comfortable with the delay, taking the lumps of a single negative news cycle, so long as the legislation eventually passes. But some worried that if Trump can’t muscle the first major bill he’s backed through a single chamber in a Republican-controlled Congress, it could devastate his agenda and weaken his authority moving forward.
“This is a reputational deal,” said Scott Reed, the chief strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We have a lot riding on this.”
“It’s a black eye for the speaker and the president if it doesn’t pass,” Reed added. Failure would be “buzzkill in terms of moving forward with a real reform agenda to grow the economy.”
Negotiations on the bill were expected to continue into the night on Thursday. A floor vote could still happen as early as Friday.
The Tuesday Group, a bloc of Republican moderates, met with Trump on Thursday evening. While the Tuesday Group is smaller than the Freedom Caucus, its members have historically proved far more likely to cast tough votes with the Republican leadership. The Freedom Caucus, a creation of the Obama years, rose almost entirely to block legislation, not pass it.
Most of Trump’s senior team, including Vice President Mike Pence, Health and Human Service Secretary Tom Price, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, chief of staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon and counselor Kellyanne Conway attended the Freedom Caucus negotiating session. Absent from the proceedings was senior adviser Jared Kushner, who’s vacationing with his wife, Ivanka Trump, and their children in Aspen, Colorado.
Trump himself has not been overly invested in the policy particulars of the health care legislation, and he decided to adopt a bill drafted by Ryan as his own. Trump famously described his health plan on the campaign trail as “repeal and replace — with something terrific” but he is now caught in the middle of an ideological tug-of-war within the Republican Party. He spent part of Thursday afternoon outside the White House with trucking officials, climbing behind the wheel of a big-rig, blowing the horn and pretending to drive off.
Spicer said there is “a little bit of a balancing act that goes on” and that lawmakers have “disparate desires.”
There’s already some finger-pointing as the legislation has stalled.
Chris Ruddy, the head of Newsmax and a close friend of Trump’s, said of the legislation crafted by Ryan was flawed from the start.
“He got delivered a damaged bill of goods,” Ruddy complained.
Some Republicans were complaining that Trump was doing too much to bring along House hardliners, endangering the chances that the final bill could pass in the more moderate Senate; others blamed aides for not doing enough.
One GOP aide was frustrated Trump was negotiating directly with the House Freedom Caucus given “they’re the ones trying to stop us from getting this passed.” And a GOP lawmaker said some in the House were annoyed because Trump couldn’t talk specifics on the law — “and just wanted to talk about the politics.”
A senior White House official, meanwhile, said the negotiations were difficult because the Freedom Caucus members are clashing with House leadership, leaving the president and his team — particularly Bannon, who has been closely involved in negotiations—stuck in the middle. By late Thursday, Bannon and members of the Freedom Caucus were all in Ryan’s office.
At the same time, two Hill Republicans involved in the negotiations complained that Paul Teller, a Trump legislative aide with deep ties to the conservative movement, wasn’t doing enough to move far-right votes. “He’s a conservative first,” said one. Teller, a former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), has been a key conduit bringing conservatives to the White House.
Rep. Mark Meadows, the head of the Freedom Caucus, praised Trump’s willingness to negotiate directly with his members, often by marginalized by the House GOP leaders, and dismissed the planned vote Thursday as an “artificial deadline.”
“I would say that, at this point, the president’s engagement is unparalleled,” he said.
The Freedom Caucus continues to make new demands, said the senior White House official, though the administration isn’t planning further changes. “It will make the bill totally unworkable in the Senate,” this person said.
As it is, many key conservative groups have lined up against the bill, including Heritage Action, the Club for Growth and the political network of the Koch brothers, which has pledged financial support to lawmakers who oppose the legislation.
“At the end of the day,” Spicer said, “we can’t make people vote.”
Madeline Conway contributed to this report.
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