LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Over all the years that Mitch McConnell attended college basketball games at Freedom Hall, the Louisville alumnus probably never envisioned a scene like what played out Monday night.
The building was still a sea of red, but “Make America Great Again” hats had supplanted much of the Cardinals gear.
That was because President Donald Trump came to town to visit with the Senate majority leader and promote the Republican leadership plan to roll back the 2010 health care law.
“Hey, Mitch, we going to be OK? That health care’s looking good?” the president said onstage.
Trump is cajoling Republicans to support the GOP health care legislation, but at this point, he hasn’t even won over McConnell’s home-state colleague, Republican Rand Paul, who spent the day rallying opposition to the GOP plan, both in the Louisville area and back in Washington with his House colleagues.
As the House barrels toward a scheduled vote on the Republican health care plan on Thursday, the battle lines represented by McConnell and Paul will be in stark relief, as was outlined by how the senators spent their time Monday.
“This is our long-awaited chance to finally get rid of Obamacare,” Trump said, adding that the alternative was keeping the law in effect, which he called “nothing.”
Trump mentioned Paul by name, saying that he would work with Kentucky’s junior senator.
“I look forward to working with him so we can get this bill passed in some form,” the president said.
Trump enjoys enormous popularity in the Bluegrass State, and while McConnell faced a good deal of boos when he took the stage, it was all cheers as he finished up with praise for Trump.
“Here in Kentucky, it’s been a disaster. Costs are going up. Premiums just went up by 27 percent. The choice is going down,” McConnell said, referring to the 2010 law. “They returned a Republican Congress last year and they answered our message and our prayers. We said, ‘Send us somebody who will sign the repeal of Obamacare into law,’ and they sent us President Donald Trump.”
Matt Bevin, who went from being destroyed by McConnell in the 2014 Senate GOP primary to the governor’s mansion the following year, was onstage at Freedom Hall to make his own pitch on health care.
With the commonwealth having taken part in the expansion of Medicaid under former Democratic Gov. Steven L. Beshear, the conservative Bevin may now have to navigate how to deal with a rollback of benefits that thousands of his state’s citizens use for health insurance.
But Bevin’s warm-up speech before McConnell featured plenty of criticism of the 2010 overhaul for the crowd, including knocking minimum coverage requirements the law calls for.
“I don’t need maternity benefits because I don’t expect I’ll be expecting,” Bevin said. “Truth be told, I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that. There are women who frankly don’t want to pay for procedures they’re never going to need either.”
Meanwhile, the White House confirmed that Trump will be heading to the Capitol on Tuesday to speak with the House Republican Conference.
Some conservative lawmakers who have been critical of the House GOP health care bill attended meetings at the White House on Monday. Utah Sen. Mike Lee was said to have described Monday’s session as “terribly frustrating.”
According to a person familiar with the meeting, White House officials told senators in attendance that, in effect, the health care overhaul is done and should not be further amended. That was not received well by Lee and others, who have argued for a more aggressive repeal of the law and to not pass the current draft, which many of them have dubbed “Obamacare Lite.”
On Monday night, McConnell took his place alongside Trump — even as Paul positioned himself both physically and symbolically far away.
Paul had been in the Louisville area earlier in the day for a meeting with business leaders that had been scheduled before Trump’s visit.
In contrast with Trump’s basketball arena crowd, Paul was speaking to a room of several dozen people, drawing only a couple of demonstrators to a designated protest area outside adjacent ball fields and a shopping center.
But as Trump headed for Louisville, Paul headed back to Capitol Hill to lobby House conservatives and rally opposition. Paul said he knew that his position could make him unpopular among some Republicans, but he said there must be a market-based replacement and expanded access to insurance coverage.
“If we don’t do that, my fear, as a Republican, is that, well, we repeal and replace it, or so we say, and a year from now, I’ll come back here and you’ll tell me your insurance rates went up 25 percent a year and now you’re mad at me,” Paul said. “I think we should fix it, but I don’t think we’re fixing it.”
Paul channeled Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan in making his case to the Chamber of St. Matthews, the local chamber of commerce, though there were no audience members sporting the president’s iconic red hats.
“Why are we so rich? Why is our country so rich? Capitalism. Look around Louisville. I think we’re thriving in many ways. So, what we have to have is confidence in the system that made us great. We’ve been talking about let’s make America great again? Let’s determine why we got great in the first place and why we are so wealthy as a country,” Paul said. “It’s freedom, freedom of the marketplace.”