Trump makes push on health bill; repeal-only vote an option

AP PHOTO President Donald Trump salutes as he arrives on Air Force One at Morristown Municipal Airport, in Morristown, N.J., Saturday. Trump was en route to Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., after attending an event at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is making a weekend push to get a Republican Senate bill to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s health care law “across the finish line,” Trump’s top legislative aide said Sunday, maintaining that a repeal-only option also remained in play if Republicans can’t reach agreement.

Marc Short, the White House’s legislative director, said Trump was making calls to wavering senators and insisted they were “getting close” on passing a bill.

But Short said Trump continues to believe that repeal-only legislation should also be considered after raising the possibility last Friday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has dismissed that suggestion and said he intended to proceed with legislation being negotiated over the July 4 recess.

“We hope when we come back, the week after recess, we’ll have a vote,” Short said. But he added: “If the replacement part is too difficult for Republicans to get together, then let’s go back and take care of the first step of repeal.”

Trump on Friday tweeted the suggestion of repealing the Obama-era law right away and then replacing it later, an approach that GOP leaders and the president himself considered but dismissed months ago as impractical and politically unwise.

But the tweet came amid continuing signs of GOP disagreement among moderates and conservatives over the bill.

Republicans hold a 52-48 majority in the Senate. Just three GOP defections would doom the legislation, because Democrats are united in opposition.

Republicans returned to their home districts late last week, bracing for a flood of phone calls, emails and television advertising from both conservative and liberal groups aimed at pressuring senators.

Sen. Bill Cassidy held a town hall meeting last Friday to talk about flood recovery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capital city, but audience members angry over the GOP health care bill at times chanted over Cassidy’s answers and criticized the secretive legislative process.

“I wish we weren’t doing it one party,” Cassidy said Sunday, adding he remains undecided on how he will vote.

Trump’s suggestion had the potential to harden divisions within the GOP as conservatives complain that McConnell’s bill does not go far enough in repealing Obama’s health care law while moderates criticize it as overly harsh in kicking people off insurance rolls, shrinking the Medicaid safety net and increasing premiums for older Americans.

“It’s not easy making America great again, is it?” McConnell said late Friday. He has previously indicated that if Republicans fail to reach agreement, he will have to negotiate with Democrats, who want to fix Obama’s health care law without repealing it.

Short said the White House remained hopeful after Senate Republicans submitted two versions of the bill to the Congressional Budget Office for scoring over the weeklong recess. Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz is pushing a conservative version that aims to aggressively reduce costs by giving states greater flexibility to create separate higher-risk pools. The other seeks to bolster health care subsidies for lower-income people, perhaps by preserving a tax boost on high earners.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said negotiations over the Senate bill were focusing on ways to address the issue of Medicaid coverage so that “nobody falls through the cracks,” combating the opioid crisis, as well as giving families more choice in selecting their insurance plan.

“We think that Leader McConnell and his senators within the Senate are working to try to get this piece of legislation on track,” Price said.

But conservative Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he didn’t think a repeal-and-replace bill could win 50 votes. Both he and Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., have been urging McConnell to consider a repeal-only bill first.

“I don’t think we’re getting anywhere with the bill we have. We’re at an impasse,” Paul said. He criticized Senate leaders, saying they were seeking to win over moderates with multibillion dollar proposals to combat the opioid epidemic and boost tax subsidies to help lower-income people get coverage.