As the Senate Republican health care bill began taking on water, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence dined on “rosemary-grilled” rib-eye steaks and “farm stand” peach cobbler with seven senators who were expected to support the legislation.
There was Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, a vocal proponent of the legislation, who was involved in writing it and led the effort to wrangle the necessary votes. The same was true of his fellow GOP leaders present, Sens. John Thune of South Dakota and Roy Blunt of Missouri. All were sure to vote for the bill.
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama had both already come out as supporters of the legislation. And though Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Steve Daines of Montana had told reporters they were still undecided, observers expected both would have supported the bill, had it reached the Senate floor.
That certainly was the expectation at the White House, and the entire reason why both were breaking bread with Trump and Pence just as two of their Republican colleagues, Sens. Jerry Moran of Kansas and Mike Lee of Utah, were announcing their opposition — which were two more defections than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Trump could afford.
Reaching all stakeholders
A White House official told Roll Call those seven senators were invited to the executive mansion “largely” because they are “part of the health care working group.”
The dinner was mostly “a strategy session with individuals who could help whip” votes in favor of the stalled health care legislation, the White House official said Tuesday. The official did not directly answer a question about why the president did not instead dine with undecided senators and try to win their support.
Tommy Binion, congressional and executive relations director at the conservative Heritage Foundation, acknowledged that the optics of the Monday dinner were not positive for Trump. But he said it was important to view things through this lens: “It is important for the president to be engaged in ways that are strategically advantageous.”
“So it’s proper to focus on this one meeting, but the president is not going about this [with senators] in a ham-handed way,” Binion said. “It is important for him to be talking to all the stakeholders, including the whip team and undecideds. And he has been doing that.”
One GOP political strategist, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said it appears, from the White House’s perspective, “part of the plan was to just simply strengthen ties and make sure people were on the same page.”
“A lot [was changing] with the strategy,” she said, so Trump and Pence likely wanted “some time to discuss things, particularly with Blunt, Cornyn and Thune.”
Senior Democrats contend Trump does not want to do the hard work of twisting arms and cutting deals — just what he promised as a candidate.
“He wants to throw up his hands rather than roll up his sleeves [and] solve the problem,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the Democrats’ ranking member on the Intelligence Committee, on Tuesday charged Trump with “the height of irresponsibility” for calling on Republicans to first repeal the 2010 health care law and replace it with something else down the road.
As I have always said, let ObamaCare fail and then come together and do a great healthcare plan. Stay tuned!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 18, 2017
Not Trump’s fault
Republican sources and White House aides were quick Tuesday to shift blame away from the president.
“This is a Senate problem,” Binion said. “And the Senate has to work through this. … If they don’t develop muscle memory on health care, they’ll never get there on taxes and all the other agenda items.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House principal deputy press secretary, put every ounce of blame for Monday night’s Senate failure not on Republicans or their leaders for being unable to reach a consensus on how to replace the Obama-era law, but on the party that passed it.
“They’re responsible for passing Obamacare. They’re responsible for creating the mess that we’re in,” Huckabee Sanders said of Democrats. “They’re responsible for being unwilling to work with Republicans in any capacity to help fix a system that they know is completely flawed. … I think the responsibility lies on their shoulders.”
Notably, Trump and his top aides on Tuesday sounded more in line with some Democratic members than Republicans about the next step on health care.
The president acknowledged he is “certainly disappointed” that the GOP health care push, for now at least, is stalled — or perhaps even dead.
“For seven years, I’ve been hearing, ‘repeal and replace’ from Congress,” he told reporters Tuesday. “And I’ve been hearing it loud and strong — and then when we finally get a chance to repeal and replace, they don’t take advantage of it. So that’s disappointing.”
And even as he again bashed Democrats for refusing to work toward a repeal-and-replace bill, he and Huckabee Sanders openly courted them.
Asked if Trump’s comments show he is open to a bipartisan deal on a health care overhaul, she replied: “Absolutely.”
“The president said all along that his primary goal is to find a solution,” Huckabee Sanders said. “And he’s happy to work with Democrats to get that done.”