A parade of lawmakers huddled privately with Donald Trump on Tuesday, with several senior House Republicans ending the procession by stating that the president owns their bill to partially repeal and replace the 2010 health care law.
In all, 25 House members and senators streamed through the executive mansion on a day when the Trump White House was eager to portray a unified Republican Party getting down to the details of the president’s policy agenda. Those who spoke after their meetings with Trump described the meetings, which lasted from lunchtime to late afternoon, as “great” and “very productive.”
Up first was Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the Republican defense hawk who is encouraged by Trump’s talk of more defense spending but on Saturday expressed grave concerns over the president’s allegations that former President Barack Obama tapped the phones in Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign.
Graham tweeted that his lunch meeting in the presidential dining room was so good that he gave Trump his new mobile phone number just months after the president gave out his old one on the trail, leading Graham to discard it.
The first members to appear at the microphone bank near a West Wing entrance were Sens. David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. They kept to the unity script, with Perdue hailing Trump’s first 47 days for spawning “the early makings of some growing confidence at the consumer level, and also at the corporate level, in terms of investing.”
“We think what is happening right now is the president’s conversation about pulling back on regulations, the impending tax work that we’re going to do later this year, and also the health care work that we’re doing right now to replace and repeal Obamacare is getting traction in the real world,” Perdue said.
Cotton also lavished praise on the chief executive, saying Trump “already has made good on his early campaign promises,” including “not letting anyone in this country that intends to do America harm, and also [increasing] the pace of enforcement of our immigration laws.”
But a couple hours later, just as threatening skies finally produced a few rain drops, House GOP Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and a group of deputy whips emerged from a meeting with Trump in the East Room. And they had a message to deliver, both to Trump and some of their GOP colleagues who are skeptical about a congressional Republican leadership-crafted measure that would replace the 2010 health law.
Scalise pointed out repealing the 44th president’s signature domestic achievement with a GOP-crafted measure “is something that President Trump campaigned actively on.” And he said the president assured them behind closed doors that he is ready “to do everything in his power” to help them push it through both chambers so he can sign it into law, Scalise said.
“The president made it very clear it is his bill,” House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady of Texas told reporters, hammering home the whips’ message after the East Room pow wow. “It is clear, too, he is putting his presidential weight behind this legislation.”
That was not always the case, however. Even on Tuesday morning, the White House was sending mixed signals about how much ownership it felt over the House measure — and, perhaps, how much blame it was willing to accept as a long list of Republican members and conservative groups expressed concerns or opposition.
The president tweeted what appeared an endorsement of the measure at 7:13 a.m. Tuesday morning, writing that “our wonderful” bill that would replace the law has been released for “review and negotiation.”
Our wonderful new Healthcare Bill is now out for review and negotiation. ObamaCare is a complete and total disaster – is imploding fast!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 7, 2017
But the night before, his White House issued a more tepid assessment through Monday’s press pool rather than a formal statement on official e-letterhead. (Notably, the White House did just that later Monday evening with a summary of the president’s calls to the leaders of Japan and South Korea.)
It wasn’t until Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price weighed in supporting the House bill, and made his way over to the Senate Tuesday for Republicans’ policy lunch, that the full force of the administration came out in favor.
In a letter to Brady and Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden, Price wrote: “On behalf of the Trump administration, I am writing in support of the reconciliation recommendations recently for consideration by your committees.” Price later spent a considerable amount of time addressing reporters in the White House briefing room, repeatedly indicating the administration’s support.
The senior House members wanted everyone to know their suddenly troubled bill was as much Trump’s as theirs.
“The president made it clear to us he wants us to pass this piece of legislation,” Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry of North Carolina said. “The president spent a lot of time talking about the devastating consequences of us not acting. … It was clear his passion is there for us to move [the bill].”
“He asked us to take immediate action to make sure our colleagues know that he supports the plan, in detail and in form that’s been filed and is working its way through the Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means committees,” McHenry said, referring to the president. “We know that we have his endorsement [and] support to act.”