Trump 'Surprised' by Senate GOP Revolt on Health Bill

Trump 'Surprised' by Senate GOP Revolt on Health Bill
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President Trump sounded perplexed in the wake of the Senate GOP’s health care debacle this week, and unclear about what exactly his divided party should do next.

There was a time when he promised supporters that ridding the country of President Obama’s signature legislative creation would be “so easy.” But on Tuesday, that certainty gave way to indecision, finger pointing and ample evidence that Trump is perceived, including by Republicans in Washington, as so out of his legislative depth as to be a liability.

“It is a terrible environment on so many levels when policy and political types begin all strategic-assumption conversations with a focus on how to avoid or at least mitigate the president,” said a GOP source with extensive Capitol Hill and administration experience. 

The president ricocheted through a series of morning tweets that blamed Senate Democrats and “a few Republicans,” while advocating letting the Affordable Care Act law “fail.”

Senators, Trump advised, should alter their rules to dispense with a 60-vote filibuster threshold once and for all (even though his party could not find 50 votes to move the legislation he favored). And he predicted, as if it were unclear, that Republicans, with narrow majorities in the House and Senate, “need more victories next year” in the midterm elections.

Hours later, the president distanced himself from GOP senators whose dramatic disagreements about health policy he observed for weeks, but made no appreciable headway in settling.

“I am disappointed, because for so many years I've been hearing `repeal and replace.’ I'm sitting in the Oval Office right next door, pen in hand, waiting to sign something. And I'll be waiting,” Trump said.

The president and his West Wing team insisted they were not giving up after two wobbly efforts in the House, which resulted in narrow passage of a health care measure Trump later told senators was “mean,” and after consideration of two versions of a Senate measure, neither one of which had sufficient appeal to come to the floor.

While Trump tried to focus public attention on Republicans’ promised push for substantial tax changes this fall, his aides conceded that health care was inextricably tied to tax reform, each tethered to the other for budget reasons. And in Washington’s practiced view, a major flameout on Capitol Hill is rarely followed by a significant – and equally complex – legislative victory, especially when all other conditions remain unchanged. In other words, the health care saga does not bode well for fundamental tax reform, which Washington hasn’t seen since 1986.

Translation: Trump, as the leader of the party that governs Washington from end to end, could find himself with few achievements this year on which Republican candidates want to campaign next year. And while his core supporters may not blame the president, according to recent polls, Trump’s colleagues on Capitol Hill are.

Democrats are making much of the president’s failure to deliver on an agenda they argue is injurious to vulnerable Americans. And Republicans behind closed doors and in hushed tones shake their heads that the Trump administration is hobbled by all manner of complications, beginning with the president.

“I think he’s going to end the year with a big, fat zero,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Nevada’s Harry Reid, who led Senate Democrats through the passage and enactment of the ACA in 2010.

“There is no fear of Trump among [Capitol Hill] Republicans, and Democrats are not scared of him, either,” he said.

The president conceded he was caught by surprise Monday night, after he dined at the White House with members of the Senate GOP caucus who already supported the embattled bill, not with the senators who did not.

He learned that two Republicans, Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas, issued statements saying they would not vote for a redrafted measure, despite Trump’s entreaties. They joined at least two other GOP senators who had publicly balked at taking up the measure, exceeding the number that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could mathematically afford to lose. 

“I was very surprised when the two folks came out last night, because we thought they were in fairly good shape, but they did. And, you know, everybody has their own reason,” the president told reporters on Tuesday.

Trump and his White House legislative team have earned a reputation over five months as “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, because they just don’t understand the legislative process,” Manley added.

Not so, White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. The president wants to work with Democrats to find the votes he could not lock up in his own party, she said. But she offered no details or timetables for how the president plans to proceed.

“Hopefully, now that Obamacare continues to completely collapse, maybe they’ll decide that they want a part of this process,” Sanders said after blaming Democrats for “creating the mess” of a law she repeatedly said is “dead,” “dying,” and “over a cliff.”

After observing Republicans’ governing struggles, Democrats in the House and Senate are unlikely to decide that working across the aisle with Trump and the GOP would be politically advantageous, whether on health care, tax reform or infrastructure spending, according to Washington analysts from both parties. The president again lambasted them as “obstructionists.”

The president shrugged off multiple potential political perils for his own party -- if Obamacare becomes his executive responsibility, or if GOP lawmakers continue to disagree whether they should repeal the law or repair it.

Sanders would not commit the administration to supporting the law’s ongoing requirements for subsidies, health benefits and Medicaid cost-sharing in the absence of any new law or enacted provisions. 

“We're going to have to go out and get more Republicans elected in '18,” Trump said enthusiastically. “And I'll be working very hard for that to happen, OK?”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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