WASHINGTON (AP) — Abandoning negotiations, President Donald Trump late Thursday demanded a make-or-break vote on health care legislation today in the House, threatening to leave the Affordable Care Act in place and move on to other issues if the vote fails.
The risky move, part gamble and part threat, was presented to GOP lawmakers behind closed doors Thursday night after a long and intense day that saw a planned vote on the health care bill scrapped as the legislation remained short of votes amid cascading negotiations among conservative lawmakers, moderates and others.
At the end of it, the president had had enough and was ready to vote and move on, whatever the result, Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney told lawmakers.
“ ‘Negotiations are over. We’d like to vote tomorrow, and let’s get this done for the American people.’ That was it,” Rep. Duncan Hunter of California said as he left the meeting, summarizing Mulvaney’s message to lawmakers.
And if the vote fails, the law “stays for now,” Hunter said.
“Let’s vote,” White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said as he left the meeting.
But White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders framed the delay as being “for scheduling purposes, so nobody has to be up at 3 o’clock in the morning for a vote.”
“We’re very confident that the bill will pass” in the morning, she said, adding that while the White House remains open to tweaking the measure, “this is the bill, this is the vote.”
The outcome of today’s vote was uncertain.
Conservative and moderate lawmakers claimed that the bill lacked votes after the long day of talks.
Moderates were given pause by projections of 24 million Americans losing coverage in a decade and higher out-of-pocket costs for many low-income and older people, as predicted by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
In an updated analysis Thursday, the CBO said late changes to the bill meant to win over reluctant lawmakers would cut deficit reduction in half while failing to cover more people.
“We are trying to get 30 to 40 no votes to yes,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told reporters after a closed-door meeting Thursday with members of the Freedom Caucus, a conservative group of lawmakers who have concerns about the bill.
“I’d like to see 237 votes, but we are not at that particular point,” said Meadows, chairman of the group.
In a circuslike atmosphere across Capitol Hill, members shuttled to and from various rooms for meetings with House Speaker Paul Ryan and leadership throughout the day, along with treks down Pennsylvania Avenue to meet with Trump.
Few seemed to know exactly what was going on.
All Democrats are against the bill, so Ryan can afford only about 20 defections from his own party, depending on how many members are present to vote.
As Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., joined his colleagues streaming into an all-members meeting Thursday night, he expressed frustration at this week’s intraparty discord, with conservatives and moderates playing tug of war.
“We need to pull together,” he said. “Circular firing squads only hurt ourselves, and I feel like that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Bacon said lawmakers were elected to get the job done.
While President Barack Obama’s health care law included good provisions such as guaranteed coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, Bacon said he’s also heard horror stories about Nebraskans hurt by the law.
As Bacon emerged from the meeting, he said it included great speeches calling for unity. He reiterated his strong support for the GOP bill.
“I’ve changed my vote, from ‘yes’ to ‘hell, yes,’ ” Bacon said.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., described the meeting as an intensely emotional family gathering that highlighted what a pivotal moment Congress faces. The message, he said, was that the time for talking is over. It’s time to vote.
He wouldn’t make a definite commitment to back the bill but sounded as though he would support it. He described the legislation as imperfect but at least an attempt to shore up insurance markets.
Inaction would mean markets continue to fail and premiums rise, he said.
“The reality is not acting is a decision and I think it would be an imprudent or even detrimental decision for America,” Fortenberry said.
The Republican legislation would halt Obama’s tax penalties against people who don’t buy coverage and cut the federal-state Medicaid program for low earners, which the Obama statute had expanded.
It would provide tax credits to help people pay medical bills, though generally skimpier than Obama’s statute provides. It also would allow insurers to charge older Americans more and repeal tax increases that the law imposed on high-income people and health industry companies.
The measure would also block federal payments to Planned Parenthood for a year, another stumbling block for GOP moderates.
The drama unfolded seven years to the day after Obama signed his landmark law, an anniversary GOP leaders meant to celebrate with a vote to undo the divisive legislation.
Instead, forced to delay the vote, the anniversary turned into bitter irony for the GOP. As the House recessed and lawmakers negotiated, C-SPAN filled up the time playing footage of Obama signing the Affordable Care Act.
“In the final analysis, this bill falls short,” GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington said Thursday as she became the latest rank-and-file Republican, normally loyal to leadership, to declare her opposition.
“The difficulties this bill would create for millions of children were left unaddressed,” she said, citing the unraveling of Medicaid.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who as speaker was Obama’s crucial lieutenant in passing the Democratic bill in the first place, couldn’t resist a dig at the GOP disarray.
“You may be a great negotiator,” she said of Trump. “Rookie’s error for bringing this up on a day when clearly you’re not ready.”
The high-wire balancing act, in which Republicans are catering to conservatives in the House with the knowledge that they still must woo moderates to get legislation to Trump’s desk, could not only reshape the nation’s health care system but could also have uncertain electoral repercussions for the new majority.
Passage of the bill would represent a major political victory for the White House and House leaders, although the ultimate fate of the legislation hinges on the Senate.
If Republicans fail this initial test of their ability to govern, Trump and Capitol Hill Republicans may face a harder time advancing high-priority initiatives on infrastructure, taxes and immigration.