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WASHINGTON President Donald Trump has launched a
charm offensive of the type not seen before in his brief and
chaotic tenure, forcefully rallying behind legislation to repeal
the Obamacare healthcare law while trying to placate the bill’s
In doing so, the often blustery Trump faces a test of
credibility for the voters that catapulted him into office: How
does a celebrity outsider, the CEO president, cut deals in
Washington? Does the New York businessman live up to the image
of dealmaker in chief?
Interviews with more than a dozen White House and
congressional aides, members of Congress and conservative
activists offer a glimpse into his attempts at conducting the
most formidable, high-stakes negotiation of his presidency.
They show a more circumspect Trump than many see publicly.
While they acknowledge he can make his points with a blunt and
combustible style, he appears to be doing more listening than
talking, they said, trying to appease both supporters and
critics by signaling flexibility over legislation that faces
criticism on multiple fronts.
Democrats and some influential Republicans say it would rip
health insurance away from millions of Americans and increase
costs for many others, including voters who helped elect Trump –
a problem that could haunt his fellow Republicans in 2018
Conservatives say it does not go far enough in gutting the
Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature
healthcare reform passed by Democrats in 2010. Republicans have
long sought to dismantle the law, which they see as government
overreach. Trump has called Obamacare a “disaster” and made its
repeal and replacement a key campaign pledge.
The political stakes are immense for an eight-week-old presidency marked by instability, infighting, battles with the
media, questions over temperament and a stubborn investigation
into ties between his campaign and Russian intelligence.
“A lot of times you have politicians who gather in a room to
pontificate. That’s not why he has gathered people in the room,”
a senior White House official said of Trump’s negotiation style
this week. “He’s gathered people in to hear their opinions. I
think that’s lost a little bit because he does speak so
forcefully. He definitely does let them say their piece, and he
The president has reached out to influential conservatives
such as U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and groups such as the Heritage
Foundation and Americans for Prosperity, which have expressed
skepticism about the bill.
“He was gregarious, reasonable. He listened. It was a not a
lecture,” said Tim Phillips, president of AFP, a group backed by
billionaires Charles and David Koch and part of a small group of
conservative leaders who met with Trump in the Oval Office on
“He said: ‘This is a negotiation. Let’s figure out ways to
make this proposal better,’” Phillips said of Trump.
Trump has indicated he will only go so far to make
conservatives happy, insisting the core elements of the bill
must remain intact if it has any chance to pass the House of
Representatives and then the Senate, both controlled by
Republicans. One sticking point involves the use of tax credits
to help consumers purchase health insurance, which Trump favors.
“He’s made it clear this is the vehicle to finally undo the
damage of Obamacare and repeal and replace it,” said another
senior White House official. “And if it can be improved in this
process, he has encouraged that.”
THIN MARGIN FOR SUCCESS
Trump is operating with a razor-thin margin for success. A
defection by 20 or so Republicans in the House could sink the
bill’s prospects. There is already discontent among some in the
Senate, where Republicans hold an even slimmer edge. Democrats
and groups such as AARP, which advocates for older Americans,
and the American Medical Association have come out strongly
against the bill.
Conservatives in the House and advocacy groups opposed to
the bill would like to slow the process and rework its
fundamentals. They argue the legislation retains basic facets of
Obamacare, including federal assistance to purchase health
insurance and penalties if coverage lapses.
House Speaker Paul Ryan is hoping to pass the legislation
within two weeks so the House can move on to other priorities.
That leaves little time for wholesale alterations.
Representative Kevin Brady, chairman of the House Ways and
Means Committee, said he expected the bill would largely remain
in its current form. “I know lots of people have good ideas.
That’s terrific. And those will fit in future bills.”
The White House has tried to persuade conservatives that the
House bill is just the first step in a three-step process, and
will soon be joined by a companion bill that would embrace some
of their policy priorities. Regulations put in place by
Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price will also
address their concerns, aides said.
The challenge for Trump is whether he can convince enough
wary conservatives to back the first step of the plan without
being able to guarantee the other phases will come to pass. It
could leave them on the record voting for a bill they do not
feel adequately dismantles Obamacare.
Some conservatives may also not see the point of sticking
their necks out backing a bill that may die in the Senate.
“This is a futile effort,” said Rachel Bovard, a policy
analyst for the Heritage Foundation, which opposes the bill.
‘MAKING PEOPLE FEEL LOVED’
The White House is aggressively making the case that the
House bill is the best chance to do away with Obamacare.
Moving too far rightward to placate conservatives could stir
up opposition from moderate Republicans and lead to a bill that
stokes a powerful backlash among millions of Americans who would
lose health insurance – including many Republicans. Many
Democrats are already planning to run campaigns on the issue.
The White House was busy this week trying to reassure
moderate Republicans as well.
Vice President Mike Pence is holding meetings in Congress,
including with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a
Republican aide said. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, a
former House member, has invited conservative lawmakers to
dinner at the White House next Tuesday.
Trump plans to leverage the power of his office in another
way, making trips to Kentucky and Tennessee in coming days to
sell the House bill to the American public.
Earlier this week, Trump welcomed about 30 Republican House
members, many of whom said they had never been in the White
House before – a contrast in style from Obama, who was often
criticized for not attempting to engage more fully with
Congress. In the East Room, Trump told them to come back every
Grover Norquist, a longtime conservative tax advocate,
praised Trump’s strategy, saying: “He is making people feel
loved and appreciated and part of the team.” (Additional reporting by Caren Bohan)
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