White House: Final Health Care Deal Unlikely This Week

Tax package appears months away from hitting Capitol Hill

President Donald Trump watches the lighting of memorial candles during the annual Days of Remembrance Holocaust ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda on April 25, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump watches the lighting of memorial candles during the annual Days of Remembrance Holocaust ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda on April 25, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 26, 2017 at 5:04am

A deal with House Republicans this week on health care is unlikely, a White House official said, and it will be at least six weeks before any tax reform legislation receives serious action on Capitol Hill.

President Donald Trump shocked congressional Republicans last week when he said he wanted a vote on a revised measure that would repeal and replace the Obama administration’s 2010 health care law. But with lawmakers slogging toward a Friday government-shutdown deadline, and with thorny issues remaining on a new health bill, it appears any pact on the latter is at least a week away.

“I’m reluctant to give you a timeline,” White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short told reporters Tuesday. But he made clear that a final agreement among House Republicans and White House officials is at least days away, if not longer.

Whatever they agree on must then be “socialized,” he said, referring to an often time-consuming process. The emerging potential agreement will have to be shared with the entire House GOP caucus and outside groups like influential conservative political organizations, and likely some health industry associations, before it can be teed up for a floor vote. 

Then comes time for all members to have ample opportunity to read the bill and a Rules Committee meeting to set the terms of floor action.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady was also cautious speaking about timing. It’s important to give members the time to review and “digest” the latest changes, he said. The Texas Republican would not commit to a health care overhaul being complete before a tax code rewrite.

“Let consensus drive the timing,” he said, echoing Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s comments.

White House officials are “very excited” that parts of the often-fractious House GOP conference, including the conservative Freedom Caucus and moderate Tuesday Group, have been in negotiations. That never happened last month, when the factions failed to find common ground on their differing gripes about a bill that Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Trump ultimately pulled before a planned vote.

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He described Trump officials has “very confident” they are nearing the 216 GOP votes needed to get a new health bill out of the House. Asked about the Freedom Caucus, which has close to 40 members, Short told reporters the White House thinks it has secured “80 percent” of the conservative faction’s members.

Last time, that figure was only 50 percent, he said.

Brady told reporters Tuesday that text of the health care amendment negotiated by Tuesday Group co-chairman Tom MacArthur and Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows “is being developed and refined” but that he believes there is “a lot to like about this proposal.”

After Trump stated his preference for a health vote this week, he and his team quickly started walking it back. By last Friday, Press Secretary Sean Spicer was at the White House briefing room podium making clear the administration would rather lock in the necessary votes, and craft a measure that would have a fighting chance in the Senate, than just have the House pass anything.

Short and his staff still calculate Trump would sign a health care overhaul bill before Congress sends him any tax legislation that simplifies the code and ushers in big individual and corporate rate cuts.

The summer heat and humidity will be in full effect — or perhaps replaced by autumn’s cooler temperatures — by the time any tax legislation reaches Trump’s desk.

That’s because the tax plan Trump is expected to lay out on Wednesday will factor in certain savings and other things that will be a part of the health care bill, which is why congressional Republican leaders and the White House continue insisting on doing that bill first.

Short expects four to six weeks of meetings among members and White House officials, including Trump, before any legislation is even introduced. It would then begin a slow march to the House and Senate floor, then possibly a conference committee to hammer out any differences.

The White House legislative affairs chief also signaled the administration is dropping the president’s demand for funding for his promised border wall in the spending measure Congress must pass by Friday night to avert a government shutdown.

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Rather, Short anticipates it will include “substantial” funding for other “border security” items. That could cover things like new surveillance equipment, though Short did not specify.

Senate Appropriations Committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters much the same on Tuesday.

“Well I think the wall has become a code for border security,” he said. “I think, at the end of the day, if [Trump] produces border security, he will have won the argument.

“I think Republicans are right to focus on border security. A 2,200-mile wall [along the U.S.-Mexico boundary] doesn’t make a lot of sense in some places,” Graham said when asked about Trump’s Tuesday morning tweet asserting his position on the wall hasn’t changed.

Trump reiterated that stance later in the day: “The wall is going to get built.”

“We’re going to have the wall built. I don’t know what people are talking [about],” he said, apparently reacting to media reports of his comments backing off the fiscal 2017 spending bill demand for wall funds. “I watch these shows, and the pundits in the morning, they don’t know what they’re talking about. The wall gets built, 100 percent.”

Asked when the border barrier will be erected, Trump said “soon.” He then replied “yes” when asked if will come during his current term, before adding some wiggle room: “We’ve got a lot of time.”

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters that the White House’s mixed messages on policy issues, including its flip-flopping on the border wall demand, reveal Trump lacks a “governing philosophy.” That is exacerbated because the president has surrounded himself with staff who “have little experience” working with Congress, Hoyer said.

Short contended that Trump has been “consistent” in his pursuit of campaign promises and declined to say whether the president’s penchant to change policy stances makes his job harder. (Trump has described himself as “flexible.”)

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Short said the White House was “counseled” early on to avoid pushing poison policy riders that might cause Democrats — and even some Republicans — to object and force a shutdown.

He said White House officials “understand” they are much more likely to get dollars for the wall during the fiscal 2018 appropriations process.

As lawmakers continue talks about the funding measure needed by Friday, they are saying a one- or two-week continuing resolution might be needed to allow them to reach a deal. Trump would sign a short-term spending bill to allow them to finish that work, Short said.

To that end, it is clear lawmakers still have some work to do — and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., again called for Trump and his staff to leave the spending negotiations to lawmakers, saying: “Thus far the White House hasn’t shown itself very constructive in what it’s done.”

Schumer’s, Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, said “taking the border wall off the table is important, but it’s not the end of the conversation.”

“At this point,” he said, “we need to move forward and make sure the government has its lights on.”

Kellie Mejdrich and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.