President Donald Trump on Wednesday again appeared to change his stance on just which path he wants Republican senators to take on health care. But he has long been infatuated with the notion of House and Senate Democratic leaders asking — begging, even — for his help on health care.
This week, the president and his aides have been posturing to put that very scenario in play, even as his own party attempts to resurrect a measure that would repeal most of and partially replace the 2010 health care law in one swoop.
For months, Trump has vacillated on his preferred way ahead on health care. He has at times advocated repealing the Obama-era law and immediately replacing it. On some days, repealing the law now and replacing it with a GOP plan down the road has been his message. And on others, like Tuesday, Trump opines that the GOP health care push has reached a point when the best option is to simply allow the 2010 law to fail.
On Wednesday, over lunch with 49 Republican senators at the White House, Trump was back to calling for passage of a single GOP repeal-and-replace bill before lawmakers leave for their summer break.
“We can repeal it, but we should repeal it and replace, and we shouldn’t leave town until this is complete, until this bill is on my desk,” Trump said, sitting beneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the State Dining Room. “I’ll sign it and we can celebrate with the American people.”
Briefing reporters shortly after the working lunch broke up, White House legislative affairs director Marc Short reiterated that reviving the repeal-and-replace bill some left for dead earlier this week is the president’s “preference.” Short said Trump made that clear to his audience during their two-hour session.
Late on Wednesday afternoon, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Senate GOP leaders’ latest iteration of their health care measure, to repeal the 2010 law with a two-year delay, would result in 32 million fewer people with health insurance by 2026. In addition, premiums on the individual market would spike by 100 percent by that year, 75 percent of the nation’s population would be living in an area with no individual insurer available.
But if past is prologue, the president could express an opposite view at any moment. Just consider his Tuesday-to-Wednesday change of heart.
Trump often expresses his opinion that the law should just fail. That would provide the opening for him to then negotiate a bipartisan deal.
Since even before taking office in late January, Trump has described President Barack Obama’s signature law as deeply flawed and “failing.” He and his top lieutenants have sought to give Democratic lawmakers full ownership of its problems — and pre-emptively place all the blame for what Trump says is its coming “collapse” on his predecessor’s party.
Trump frequently describes, as he did Tuesday, a scene in which Democrats, fearing political backlash as the 2010 health care law continues to shed insurance providers and otherwise sputter, enter into talks with him and GOP leaders to fix or replace it.
The president often describes a situation in which House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York desperately make the short trek down Pennsylvania Avenue to beg the president to save them from their own health care law.
“I’ve been saying that — Mike, I think you’ll agree — for a long time: Let Obamacare fail,” Trump said Tuesday, addressing Vice President Mike Pence in the Roosevelt Room as he took questions from reporters during a meeting with military servicemembers.
Trump’s comments came less than 24 hours after GOP Sens. Jerry Moran of Kansas and Mike Lee of Utah announced their opposition to a bill crafted by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky that would have repealed Obama’s law and replaced it with a Republican-crafted health care framework. Trump’s remarks also encapsulated what appears to be his gut instincts about what would be best for his party — and presidency.
“It will be a lot easier,” he said of a scenario in which Republicans merely stand down and allow the 2010 law to continue taking on water. “And I think we’re probably in that position where we’ll just let Obamacare fail.” Trump vowed that he and his party will not “own” that possible failure.
“We’ll let Obamacare fail and then the Democrats are going to come to us, and they’re going to say: ‘How do we fix it? How do we fix it? Or how do we come up with a new plan?’”
Paradoxically, Trump and senior White House aides in recent days have used the same words as they have tried painting the president as all-in on the Senate bill, saying he would sign it “as soon as” lawmakers get it through both chambers and onto his desk. His spokespersons have described him as fully “engaged,” working the phones to help whip the necessary 50 votes to get a health care measure out of the Senate.
Let it fail
But time and again, the 45th president has — unprompted by groups of reporters or interviewers — returned to the idea of Republicans doing nothing until Democrats feel so backed into a corner due to the 2010 law’s flaws, they ask him to throw them a lifeline.
“This will be great if we get it done. And if we don’t get it done, it’s just going to be something that we’re not going to like. And that’s OK, and I understand that very well,” Trump said in an eyebrow-raising comment during another impromptu health care huddle at the White House, this one on June 27 after McConnell canned a planned vote on an earlier version of his bill.
Trump floated the idea in a late-March interview with The Washington Post, saying, for Republicans, “the best thing politically is to let Obamacare explode.”
After Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin pulled a GOP-crafted health bill on March 24 that would later pass, Trump again brought it up in off-the-cuff remarks.
“As you know, I’ve been saying for years that the best thing is to let Obamacare explode and then go make a deal with the Democrats and have one unified deal,” he said in March. “I’ll fix it as it explodes. They’re going to come to ask for help,” he said. (The House measure would eventually pass in May, with only GOP votes.)
He also went there during an April 12 interview in the Oval Office with The Wall Street Journal. “I don’t want people to get hurt,” the president said. “What I think should happen — and will happen — is the Democrats will start calling me and negotiating.”
By floating this scenario, the GOP president each time essentially predicts his own party will ultimately be unable to get a bill to his desk.
William Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, did not rule out Trump’s often-venerated idea becoming reality.
“Of course, the president could decide not to do anything to help stabilize the markets, force a crisis and, yes, that would result not only in Democrats but Republicans wanting to quickly negotiate a stabilization policy,” said Hoagland, a former senior Senate GOP budget and appropriations aide.
But it does not have to come to that, Hoagland said: “Democrats have already said they were willing to negotiate. What are we waiting for?”
For their part, Democrats this week have said they are willing to work with Trump and GOP members on a bipartisan bill. But, as Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and others said Wednesday, they have no interest in doing so if the president decides to see to it that the 2010 law bleeds out.
“The president rooting for health care to succeed means he’s going to feel good if millions of people get hurt? That’s just outrageous,” said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, his party’s vice presidential nominee last year.
“We won’t let him sabotage our health care system,” Kaine told MSNBC. “We’ve got to work in a bipartisan way to make it better.”
Back at the White House, despite Wednesday’s GOP working lunch, some of Trump’s aides this week joined him in sending signals to Democrats that the boss’s infatuation might not be out of the question.
“I think the president laid out pretty clearly from the beginning of this process he was more than willing to sit down with Democrats,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, principal deputy press secretary, said this week.