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Health bill could show limits of Trump's Senate sway

President Donald Trump is starting to whip votes for the Senate health bill, but he could find his influence there is more limited than in the House of Representatives, where he cajoled, cursed and wooed members to vote for his top campaign promise.

Aides to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were set to brief White House staffers Wednesday evening on the details of the bill they’ve been writing in secret, before it is expected to be made public Thursday. The president is expected to endorse their plan to repeal Obamacare. But even with Trump’s help, the bill faces a perilous path in the Senate.

Trump called Sen. Rand Paul Tuesday to see if he could be convinced to back the bill. Paul said he gave Trump no guarantees he’d vote for the bill, which he described as too much like Obamacare.

“We might have to play golf again,” Paul told POLITICO as he recounted their conversation.

“If it doesn’t work for Alaska, it doesn’t make any difference who’s calling me,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), preemptively dismissing any attempt by Trump to twist her arm; she said he hasn’t reached out yet. Murkowski and Paul are two of the senators who are most skeptical of the health legislation, though they have different complaints.

The Trump White House has been conspicuously hands-off in the drafting of the Senate bill. In previous administrations, the president likely would have laid out guiding principles for legislation during the campaign and lawmakers would follow his lead in drafting it. That has not happened in the Senate. “They just don’t participate in the policy,” a chief of staff to one Senate Republican said of the White House.

Legislative affairs director Marc Short and his team have recently spent weekends and nights huddling with McConnell’s staff and senators, and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Director Seema Verma also has met with senators, two White House officials said.

But three senior administration officials said they had not seen the details of the bill as recently as Tuesday afternoon. Asked Wednesday aboard Air Force One if Trump had seen details, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said that “the appropriate individuals have seen the bill,” according to a pool report.

The White House is offering “technical advice” from officials such as Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Vice President Mike Pence, said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is helping draft the bill. Outside groups that got involved in the House’s legislative effort earlier this year also have largely stayed away from the Senate process, knowing McConnell is in charge.

“The White House is leaving it to Mitch, and I think that’s smart,” said former Majority Leader Trent Lott, who recently met with several senators. “He’s a wily old rascal and knows how to work his conference.”

White House and Capitol Hill officials are privately concerned that Trump’s lack of policy expertise could throw off fluid dynamics — and potentially hurt in negotiations with some senators, one Capitol Hill and one White House official close to the talks said. Members of the House Freedom Caucus complained in March that Trump was not engaged in policy details they cared about in an earlier version of health care legislation.

Having the president discuss a bill in depth with a senator doesn’t “use his talents well, and it’s not going to help us,” one White House official said. Some Republicans who were not vocal Trump backers, such as Sen. John McCain and Sen. Mike Lee, might not be swayed by a call from the president.

Two White House officials also said they didn’t think McConnell — who has tightly controlled the process, hand-selecting a group of lawmakers to help write the bill — would let them have much control “even if we wanted it.”

“There were more leakers and many more drama queens on the House side during that whole debate. He runs a very tight ship,” one of the White House officials said of McConnell.

Trump, one outside ally said, has criticized the House bill and senators at different points — “telling people what they want to hear about it.” He has asked few questions about the specific language in the bill, one administration official said, but has asked repeatedly about vote totals.

He has focused more of his attention on the ongoing Russia investigation, said the outside ally, who has spoken to Trump.

Senate leaders will begin whipping votes after the text is released on Thursday, and Trump’s involvement is expected to increase after that. The White House has looked at Trump’s poll numbers in certain states, wondering how much pressure he could exert in the final days on particular senators.

Officials have expressed rising optimism in recent days that the bill will pass. “Businessmen don’t do one task at a time. As president he’s proven that he’s prolific, that he can meet with tech giants and open apprenticeships at the same time. And still work on completing repeal and a replace as a top priority,” said Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor.

But a handful of Republicans still seem skeptical about the legislation, and White House officials have begun envisioning scenarios in which McConnell loses two Republican votes and the Senate is tied, requiring Pence to cast the 51st vote in favor of the bill.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) raised doubts that McConnell and his team were responding to Trump’s complaint in a meeting last week that the House bill was too harsh.

“The president has argued for a more generous bill,” she said in an interview. “We’ll have to see what comes out tomorrow, but I’m wondering if those who are drafting the bill are listening to what the president said about the need for the bill to be more generous.”

Paul, too, could be a tough sell. If Trump can secure his vote, it would be a big win, because the Kentuckian’s colleagues in the Senate are skeptical he will get on board.

Sunday is supposed to be 85 degrees and sunny in Washington — a perfect day for golf.

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