White House Health Care Full-Court Press Changes Few Minds

Trump, Ryan lack needed 216 votes in House, says Freedom Caucus chairman

President Donald Trump and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price arrive in the Capitol to meet with the House Republican Conference about the party’s health overhaul bill on Tuesday morning. Despite Trump’s full-court press, there was little evidence he changed many minds. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price arrive in the Capitol to meet with the House Republican Conference about the party’s health overhaul bill on Tuesday morning. Despite Trump’s full-court press, there was little evidence he changed many minds. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 22, 2017 at 5:05am

A White House in full-court press mode deployed President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to call out and fire up Republican members about the party’s health care overhaul bill, but there was scant evidence it worked.

Trump made a rare morning trek to the Capitol’s basement in his quest for the 216 Republican votes, where he addressed the GOP House caucus with his signature brashness: Members present said he called out reluctant members, including Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, by name. A few hours later, Pence tried to keep skeptical GOP senators in the loop about what kind of bill they might soon receive.

The president warned House Republicans they could face tough primary challenges and the party could lose both chambers if the health care bill dies. Trump also warned them that killing the measure would virtually derail his plans to pursue a tax overhaul package — with massive cuts popular with Republican members and voters alike — later this year.

Lingering concerns

However, hours later, as Republican House members scurried about during a vote series and senators left a lunch meeting with Pence, they spoke not of the power of the presidential pressure campaign, but about their lingering concerns about a list of policy provisions still in the bill. GOP members said they appreciated the White House’s late Trump-Pence push, with some acknowledging the president’s words carry extra weight. But some stopped short of declaring the administration’s outreach effective.

[Trump Warns GOP Members of Political, Policy Pitfalls of Killing Health Bill]

Sen. Bob Corker said Pence briefed the Senate GOP conference on where administration officials believe the contents of the bill they would inherit from the House will end up.

“The meetings they’ve been having seem like they’ve been constructive, and people are really trying to resolve concerns that people have raised,” the Tennessee Republican said. “It appears to me they’re giving it an all-out effort, and really trying to address … concerns on both ends of the spectrum of our party.”

But asked if White House officials, including the president and vice president, are changing minds — and votes — Corker demurred.

“I think that’ll be measured on Thursday night,” he said. “That’s when the scorecard comes in: Thursday night.”

House Freedom Caucus member Trent Franks, like many members of the group, is not yet ready to endorse the bill, but the Arizona Republican said he is “hopeful that we can come to the end of this at a yes — but we are certainly not there yet.”

Asked if Trump’s blunt message changed any minds, Frank took a deep breath before answering.

“I don’t know. He was jovial. The press reports that he was combative or threatening were false completely,” he said.

“I thought it was good to hear from him,” he added, also noting that he expects the legislation to change again before the chamber holds a final vote.

[Timing for House Vote on GOP Health Plan Could be Fluid]

Homing in

Trump and House leaders appear to be trying to cobble together Republican votes by picking off small groups of larger conservative factions, like the Freedom Caucus and much-larger Republican Study Committee. But just how many votes that will yield is a key remaining question.

Meadows told reporters Tuesday he has concluded that the White House and House leaders still did not have enough votes locked in. One high-level source said leadership sees “a path” to 216, and expressed confidence the bill will pass.

In fact, in the hours after the president’s pep talk, several Republican members expressed their opposition — the opposite effect of what the White House intended after Trump took his bully pulpit up Pennsylvania Avenue.

Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, a doctor and a member of both the Freedom Caucus and the RSC, said he is a “no” on the health care bill. In a tweet, Rep. Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania said he cannot support the bill in its current form, citing “concern over lack of verification that tax credits won’t go to people unlawfully” in the United States.

Trump’s visit alone failed to convince Ways and Means member James B. Renacci, who said he remains undecided. The Ohio Republican, who is running for governor in 2018, cited a need to review the manager’s amendment before making his decision.

Providing cover for those conservatives opposed is a bevy of interest groups vehemently opposed to the bill. Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth have all urged conservatives to oppose the measure, and some are backing that up with ad campaigns thanking Meadows and his band.

Corker said he remains undecided about the House measure, saying he wants to “see it all in one pile” before taking a stance. “I have expressed thoughts throughout,” he said.

[Key Conservatives Come Around on GOP Health Plan]

Senate response

Sen. Lindsey Graham said he was not familiar with the latest changes to the House health care bill, but he seemed to dismiss the idea that Republicans should vote in favor of it for political expediency.

“If the only reason you’re voting for the bill is because you’re worried about losing your seat, you’re not probably worthy of the seat,” the South Carolina Republican said.

It is the top GOP senator whom many observers see ultimately deciding its fate, should it pass the House. And on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell showed no signs of slowing the bill’s rapid journey from concept to draft to floor votes, reiterating that he intends to deal with it and Neil Gorsuch’s nomination for the Supreme Court before the fast-approaching Easter recess.

“These are the various episodes you go through in trying to make a law and get a signature,” the Kentucky Republican said when asked when or whether reservations from GOP senators might cause him to pump the brakes. “We’re not slowing down.”

But McConnell’s home-state colleague Rand Paul doesn’t think the Senate will even come into play at this point.

“I would be a no in the Senate, but I don’t think it can pass the House,” the GOP lawmaker tweeted Tuesday afternoon.

Niels Lesniewski, Lindsey McPherson, Rema Rahman, Kellie Mejdrich, Erin Mershon, and Joe Williams contributed to this report.