In the end, the political novice-turned-president out-whipped a longtime vote wrangler.
House Republicans, on their second try this year, found just enough votes to pass a measure to partially repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care law. As they looked for votes, senior members say President Donald Trump got his hand dirty — even giving a little tactical advice hours before the dramatic vote to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the chamber’s GOP whip from 2011 to 2014.
“I walked into my office [Wednesday] morning, and they say the president’s calling again,” McCarthy recalled during a Rose Garden ceremony Thursday. “I pick up the phone. I happen to be the majority leader, the former whip. I know my members well.”
As his fellow members, staffers and others in attendance chuckled in unison, the California Republican added: “The president gives me a list of who he thinks I would best talk to.”
That’s right, the president who never before held public office gave the former whip a call sheet.
“And he was right,” McCarthy said as the crowd laughed even harder, pulling back the curtain to reveal what it’s like to work closely with Trump. “And, Mr. President, they all voted for the bill.”
As the core of the legislation was crafted last month, Trump summoned groups of House Republicans to the White House to huddle about ideas they wanted included or changes they were pushing for before committing to support the legislation on the floor. Top aides said he met or talked by telephone with more than 100 lawmakers from the 238-member GOP caucus.
This time, in the days before Trump won his first major legislative battle, he met or called around 20 members, some multiple times, said Sarah Sanders, White House principal deputy press secretary . And, to be sure, many members’ phones rang long after normal business hours had closed.
“It’s a good day because of, number one, a president who wouldn’t give up, a president who got engaged,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, whose support helped push the bill to passage.
Meadows also spoke of receiving late-night calls from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, before adding with a grin, “I’m glad that I’ll get some rest.”
In all, eight senior House Republicans spoke during what some have described as a premature celebration — the Senate is expected to make major changes to the legislation and could even kill it. But just about each one praised Trump, who has next to no legislative experience, for his hands-on approach and willingness to bend enough to clear the 216-vote threshold. (The measure passed with 217 GOP votes.)
“This is the fourth presidency I’ve served with. I have never, ever, seen any kind of an engagement like this,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan said. The Wisconsin Republican hailed Trump and Pence for, as he labeled it, “their personal involvement in working with our members and working to get this right, for getting this done and getting us to where we are.”
McCarthy, the House GOP No. 2, echoed that, saying he has “been through a few presidents — but I’ve never seen someone so hands-on.”
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden, who played a key role in securing the final and decisive votes, shook Trump’s hand and traded shoulder pats with the president as he strode to the podium with the presidential seal on Thursday
The Oregon Republican also described Trump as involved at every step, saying it was a “pleasure and an honor to work with you hand in hand to get this bill to this point.”
Dealmaker in chief
Back at the Capitol on Thursday, before members boarded buses to head over for the White House ceremony, veteran members said they were impressed by a president about whom, just a few weeks ago, many still had doubts.
Several, notably, used words like “angry” to describe the negotiator in chief when they pushed for changes at which Trump initially balked.
“He’s starting to get a sense of the institution, the players, the members very individually,” said Rep. Tom Cole, a House GOP deputy whip. The Oklahoma lawmaker said, by his count, Trump spoke to 140 House Republicans during the entire health care effort.
“Over time, that kind of engagement is really important. Bill Clinton was always really good at this,” Cole said. “Nobody is upset when they get a call from the president of the United States. And particularly when he says, ‘Hey, I saw you on television, I heard you say this.’ So he’s clearly listening to you. He’s a very hands-on negotiator. I’m very impressed with that.”
Lawmakers and analysts say the longtime businessman’s personal approach to dealmaking is different from that of Obama, a former law professor. Another difference, said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, is the current occupant of the Oval Office is freer to cut deals to garner votes because he is “unencumbered by ideology.”
“There’s no real ideology or policy depth that anchors him, and [he] has the self-confidence not to worry about changing his mind, if that’s warranted,” Grumet said. “There’s a free agency to this presidency that is both alluring and frightening, depending on the situation and one’s point of view.”
The president’s style in dealing with Congress remains a work in progress. But the bottom line, Cole said Thursday, is that without Trump, “this bill would not pass in the House today. So he gets a lot of credit.”
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.