The death of President Donald Trump’s first major legislative initiative raises major questions about his ability to keep the fractious Republican caucus together and work with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan.
GOP House members handed Trump another early-term setback Friday by killing the health care bill he demanded they take up when too many of them refused to support it. The White House and Ryan signaled their next legislative move would be a pivot toward a sweeping tax overhaul package that could prove just as tough to pass.
Their first legislative partnership, questioned by many observers, ended in failure, raising serious questions about its future — especially amid reports that Trump and top White House officials are privately upset with Ryan’s handling of the bill. The president reportedly wanted to pursue a tax overhaul package first, but sided with Ryan and others to first tackle a seven-year-old Republican goal.
Trump and Ryan, in separate remarks to the media just after the bill was pulled, painted a glowing portrait of the relationship and their views of one another.
“I like Speaker Ryan,” Trump said. “He worked very, very hard.” Minutes earlier at the Capitol, Ryan said the president “has really been fantastic” as they tried to round up the required 216 Republican votes for the health care bill.
Notably, Trump appeared more taken aback by and frustrated with what he called the various “factions” within the GOP. He and Ryan were unable to craft a bill that would please enough members of its more conservative groups like the Freedom Caucus and moderate ones like the Tuesday Group.
“We learned a lot about loyalty,” Trump said in a thinly veiled message to his own House conference. “It’s been a very interesting experience.”
Tommy Binion, a former House GOP aide now at the conservative Heritage Foundation, doubts that Friday’s failure will hinder the Trump-Ryan relationship or the president’s ability to hold his congressional caucus in line on future bills.
“I don’t attribute the policy distinctions to Donald Trump,” Binion said Friday. “These are policy differences between Republican leadership on the Hill and their members.
Binion said it was not “a defeat or even a stumble.”
“This is the nature of legislating. President Obama gave up on it early in his first term,” he said. “But I think we’re going to see this consistently during this presidency: Donald Trump doing the hard work of negotiating.”
Trump, though, exposed possible breaks with Ryan that could complicate their relationship, saying Friday he is “open” to seeking a bipartisan health care overhaul bill.
“What would be good,” the president said of the Democrats, “is if they got with us” and negotiated a bill to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law. “I’d be totally open to that,” he added.
And Trump appeared to try to put some distance between himself and a bill with Ryan’s fingerprints all over. The president said he disliked many things in the measure and predicted Friday’s failure would lead to a “better bill.”
At press time, a spokesman for Ryan had not responded to an inquiry about whether the speaker would be open to launching a new health care push with Democratic members involved in crafting a new measure.
A cloud now hanging over their relationship after their first tag-team effort, the duo turns its sights to what promises to be a massive tax overhaul package, complete with provisions to lower corporate and individual tax rates, as well as ones to, as they have both described, “simplify” the federal tax code.
But, as the new president learned Friday, it won’t be easy.
The next battle
“Now we’re going to go for tax reform, which I’ve always liked,” Trump told reporters. “Big tax cuts and tax reform, that will be next.”
Ryan also vowed to move ahead with Trump toward a tax overhaul bill.
“We have even more agreement on tax reform” and other issues than on health care, the speaker said matter-of-factly.
He acknowledged that Friday’s setback “does make tax reform more difficult,” but said that pulling the bill, also known as the American Health Care Act, would not make a tax overhaul impossible.
Like Ryan, the president has also suffered a political setback.
“Trump went from the usual ‘honeymoon period’ to divorce court in record time,” said Elaine Kamarck, who worked for President Bill Clinton for four years and is now with the Brookings Institution. “His approval rating isn’t close to 50 percent, he’s run afoul of the courts, and now he couldn’t bring his own party into line on something they all — including him — ran on. It’s pretty staggering for him.”
Focusing on a tax package, like President George W. Bush did early in his first term, she said, could help him.
“Doing a bill next that cuts corporate and individual tax rates would allow the party to come back together and get some momentum,” she said. “And, for Trump, it would give him what should be an easier win when he really needs one.”
Karmack reviewed administrations going back to President Ronald Reagan and said said no chief executive during that span has suffered such a stinging defeat on a campaign promise — especially at the hands of his own party — so early in his term.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump is “excited” to move to a tax overhaul package following the outcome of the health care push, but he did not lay out a timeline for how quickly that might begin.
“Tax reform is something the president is very committed to,” he said, adding that Trump is concerned the U.S. is not competitive on the global stage in terms of its corporate tax system.
Many conservatives provided Trump cover after the health care vote was canceled and said they remained confident in his ability to deliver on a tax overhaul and other future legislative efforts.
But at least on Friday, the man whom Spicer recently referred to as “the closer,” was unable to finalize the deal.
On the mound late in his first legislative test, Trump failed to convert the save. And Ryan, the GOP’s ace starting pitcher on all things policy, didn’t get the win.
Lindsey McPherson, Bridget Bowman and Rema Rahman contributed to this report.