The White House intensified its game of chicken with Republican lawmakers over the party’s health care overhaul plan, saying there is no Plan B.
Even as one GOP lawmaker told Roll Call there likely are around 30 “no” votes among the Republican conference — more than enough to sink the legislation — White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer warned members of his party “this is it.”
“If you want to see Obamacare repealed and replaced … this is it,” Spicer said during his daily press briefing. “We need to act,” he added, calling the measure the chamber is slated to vote on Thursday “the only train leaving the station.”
The biggest thorn in the side of the White House and House GOP leadership is the conservative Freedom Caucus. Its chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, told reporters as Spicer was talking that his group remains mostly opposed to the bill in its current form, even while he expressed optimism there could still be changes.
“I’m optimistic there may be some movement,” he said, based on conversations he had “over the last couple of hours.” He declined to get into specifics about that “movement” before he had a chance to speak with other members of the conference, or whether it addressed the so-called essential health benefits at the heart of his critique of the plan.
“The president is fully engaged and making a big difference,” he said. “No one could compliment the president more than Mark Meadows right now.”
The HFC appears to have the numbers to kill the measure. But senior White House officials remain confident they are getting close to securing the votes needed to pass the legislation and move it to the Senate.
Spicer described the White House’s lobbying effort as “slowly but surely” moving toward the magic number. “Member-by-member, we’re seeing tremendous support flow in our direction,” President Donald Trump’s top spokesman said, saying officials are “optimistic” about the “trajectory of votes flowing our way, not in the other direction.”
Meadows and libertarian Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky emerged from a Freedom Caucus meeting in the Rayburn House Office building around midday to declare the GOP bill effectively dead, and saying the lone option is to “start over.”
Spicer was dismissive. When asked specifically about Meadows’ comments for a new process, Spicer replied: “That sounds like one member’s opinion.”
To that end, a small group of Freedom Caucus members huddled with Vice President Mike Pence at the White House on Wednesday morning, and an even smaller part of the faction met with Trump. Freedom Caucus members Dave Brat of Virginia, Mo Brooks of Alabama and Louie Gohmert of Texas were spotted near the White House’s South Portico entrance.
House GOP Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry of North Carolina was at the White House for that meeting with the president, saying around 10 House Republicans had come to raise a “myriad” concerns about the legislation with the president.
McHenry told a group of pool reporters he was “bringing them to the closer,” referring to Trump. That was a label the White House was eager to have applied to Trump, a former businessman.
“He is the closer,” Spicer said with a grin, adding when asked if the White House embraces McHenry’s description: “Absolutely.”
In baseball terms, the closer is one of a team’s best pitchers who is called on typically to pitch the ninth inning in a close game to nail down a win. If that pitcher is successful, he earns a save. The health bill, which Trump vaguely contends he “had to” start with, marks the 45th president’s first save opportunity.
— Mark Meadows (@RepMarkMeadows) March 22, 2017
To be sure, Trump has been active in the process for weeks. He has worked the phones, calling GOP members from across the spectrum. He has hosted small groups of various factions, like the moderate Tuesday Group and conservative Republican Study Committee.
On Tuesday, he went to the Capitol to make his pitch to the entire House GOP caucus.
Despite Spicer’s contention that the president is fully invested in the bill pending on the House calendar, Trump sometimes has appeared lukewarm to it.
For instance, Trump referred to the legislation only briefly during remarks Tuesday night at a GOP fundraiser. During the same event, he called it the “House bill” even though White House officials were heavily involved in crafted it and lobbying GOP members.
Should the House fail to pass the bill on Thursday, Stan Collender, a former House and Senate budget aide, said the process of repealing and replacing the 2010 health law could be delayed until the August recess. On the other hand, a failure on Thursday would “more likely kill it completely.”
Meantime, Trump took a break from meeting with parts of various House GOP factions on Wednesday afternoon when he met with Congressional Black Caucus members, a group unlikely to vote with him on many pieces of legislation.
Spicer said the meeting was meant to highlight that “diversity makes our nation strong.”
During the meeting, Trump went further: “African-Americans have given up so much for this country,” adding they have “lifted up the conscious of our nation.”
Erin Mershon contributed to this story.