President Donald Trump on Tuesday steered Senate Republicans toward tax reform and away from health care, pushing off any deal to fund controversial Obamacare subsidies to the end of the year at best.
Trump joined Senate Republicans at their weekly policy lunch, but gave no direction on what he wants to see in a health care bill. He praised Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R-Tenn.) work on a bipartisan deal meant to stabilize the Obamacare markets but his emphasis on taxes led senators in the room to believe Trump doesn’t want a stand-alone Obamacare vote any time soon.
“There isn’t anything else other than taxes,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
A filibuster-proof majority backs the bipartisan deal Alexander brokered with Sen. Patty Murray, but conservatives and the White House oppose it, meaning it won’t even come up for a vote in the Senate.
Without a clear directive from the president, Republicans are still floundering about whether to work with Democrats to fund the Obamacare’s “cost-sharing” program, which help low-income people pay their out-of-pocket medical bills. Trump abruptly cut off the subsidies — the subject of a court battle — earlier this month. Insurers still have to make the payments, and many boosted their premiums for 2018 to take those costs into account.
Alexander’s stabilization bid got even more muddled when a pair of top Republicans said they would release a different bill — rivaling the bipartisan proposal — to fund the subsidies. But their version would neuter the individual mandate for five years, a non-starter for Democrats who would be needed to get a bill through the Senate.
The new version “proves that we should be focused on tax reform right now because obviously we haven’t gotten our act together on health care,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).
Republicans are increasingly confident that the subsidies will get rolled into a large, year-end bill to fund the government and raise the nation’s debt limit. But there is no agreement on what exactly that will look like, and leadership-level negotiations on the year-end bill are weeks away.
The lack of clarity left Senate Republicans with enough wiggle room to interpret Trump’s Obamacare comments as they see politically fit.
Cornyn saw a “shout out” by Trump to Alexander as encouragement for his bill. “He wasn’t specific but that’s the way I interpreted it,” he said.
But Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — an Alexander-Murray skeptic — said Trump didn’t offer any clear support for the proposal over the GOP’s competing ideas.
“There was not significant discussion on Alexander-Murray,” Cruz said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), another foe of Alexander-Murray, walked away with the same conclusion.
“He didn’t get into that in great depth — put it that way,” Hatch said. “All I can say is that he wasn’t too definitive.”
During the lunch meeting, Trump focused more on getting tax reform done so that the GOP can take another shot at repealing Obamacare in the future, instead of what should be done to stabilize the health law in the interim.
“If we get taxes done, we’ll have momentum for health care,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), summing up Trump’s position. “He talked a lot about doing health care again.” Trump has repeatedly stated recently that the GOP now has the votes for repeal in the Senate — but senators say that’s not the case, that no one has flipped.
The meeting marked Trump’s first visit to the Senate GOP’s weekly policy lunch as president and it came amid a rift with Sen. Bob Corker and growing concern within the GOP that they’ll go into the 2018 mid-term election without a legislative accomplishment. That’s amped up the pressure in the GOP to do tax reform.
But many Republican senators said after the lunch meeting that there was no discussion of petty politics and that Trump was focused on notching some GOP wins.
“It was the complete opposite of what I thought it would be — the atmosphere in the room and his complete focus,” said one senator.
The conservative Obamacare bill introduced Tuesday came from Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady.
That bill, which would fund the cost-sharing program for two years, is designed to appeal to Republicans who want to fund the Obamacare program but feel like Alexander didn’t get enough conservative concessions in his negotiations with Murray (D-Wash.).
It would eliminate Obamacare’s individual mandate penalties through 2021 and expand the use of health savings accounts. The Hatch-Brady bill will also exempt businesses from the employer mandate for 2015 through 2017 and apply certain “pro-life protections” to the cost-sharing funding.
“We must include meaningful structural reforms that provide Americans relief,” Hatch said. “This agreement addresses some of the most egregious aspects of Obamacare.”
Some of the provisions in the proposal — like the expansion of HSAs and employer mandate exemption — mirror the changes that the White House requested be made to the Alexander-Murray bill.
Alexander said he was encouraged by a growing consensus Congress should fund the payments to insurers for two more years.
“We’ve gone from a position where everybody was saying we can’t do cost sharing to responsible voices like Sen. Hatch and Chairman Brady saying we should,” he said.
But any cost-sharing bill will need 60 votes to get through the Senate, meaning Republicans will have to get at least eight Democrats to sign on. Undoing the mandates in the future would be a non-starter for many Democrats.
“If it were just a matter of getting Republicans to agree with each other, we would have repealed and replaced Obamacare by now,” said a Senate GOP aide.
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