Their top legislative priority dangling in peril, President Donald Trump and Republican leaders cajoled recalcitrant GOP lawmakers Wednesday to back their healthcare overhaul, but it was far from clear they would be able to sway enough votes.
A day ahead of Thursday’s long-awaited House showdown roll call, conservatives insisted they had the votes to torpedo the measure and the number of lawmakers publicly expressing opposition snowballed. Some conservative House members were urging their leaders to delay the vote if it is clear that it would fail.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer declared there’s no plan B for how to deliver on Trump’s promise to repeal and replace Obamacare if the vote fails.
“We’re going to get this done,” Spicer predicted. Even if the bill clears the House, it still faces strong bipartisan opposition in the Senate.
Trump huddled at the White House with 18 lawmakers, a mix of supporters and opponents, Vice President Mike Pence saw around two dozen and House GOP leaders held countless talks with lawmakers at the Capitol. The sessions came as leaders rummaged for votes on a roll call they can ill afford to lose without weakening their clout for the rest of the GOP agenda.
Asked by reporters if he’d keep pushing a health overhaul if the House rejects the measure, Trump said, “We'll see what happens.”
In a count by The Associated Press, at least 25 Republicans said they opposed the bill and others were leaning that way, enough to narrowly defeat the measure. The number was in constant flux amid eleventh-hour lobbying by the White House and GOP leaders.
Including vacancies and expected absentees, the bill would be defeated if 23 Republicans join all Democrats in voting “no.”
While Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who met with Trump, came out in favor of the bill Wednesday, that single switch was not enough to put the measure over the top. GOP leaders can afford only 22 defections, given that one Democrat is expected to be absent Thursday. A Freedom Caucus spokeswoman said Wednesday that “more than 25” members of the group oppose the bill.
One Texas Republican — Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler — is considered a firm no vote, and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, has called himself a “friendly lean no.” Among Republicans who represent portions of North Texas who are expected to vote for the bill are Rep. Michael Burgess of Pilot Point, Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth, Rep. Roger Williams of Austin, Rep. Sam Johnson of Richardson, Rep. Bill Flores of Bryan and Reps. Jeb Hensarling and Pete Sessions of Dallas.
Members of the House Rules Committee debated 29 amendments to the Obamacare replacement bill on Wednesday. The committee, led by North Texan Sessions, debated the 29 amendments including two purely symbolic measures that would fully repeal Obamacare offered by Reps. Steve King of Iowa and Mo Brooks of Alabama. Other amendments like a package sponsored by House leadership, were genuine attempts to court conservatives and moderates who are wavering on the bill.
Democrats on the committee tried to stop debate on the bill until an updated Congressional Budget Office Score was released, but were outvoted by Republicans.
“I don’t think we should be meeting on a bill until we know how many people are hurt,” said Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, testified to the Rules Committee that he expects a Congressional Budget Office score before the bill receives a vote on the House floor.
“The Congressional Budget Office is made up of professionals who are trying to get as close to an answer as possible,” Sessions said.
Republicans offered 24 of the 29 amendments still being debated on Wednesday.
Another amendment by Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., would lower the age where children could remain on their parent’s health insurance from 26 to 23.
Barton offered an amendment that would end the grandfathering in of Medicaid expansion at the end of 2017 instead of 2020, a provision that would likely appeal to some of the conservative Republicans who could vote against the bill as written. Barton offered a similar amendment during the 27-hour-long Energy and Commerce Committee markup but it ultimately did not receive a vote.
Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., acknowledged that the Rules Committee process was a Republican bid to shore up support for the much-maligned bill.
“Since you’re having trouble getting to 216 are you going to give an updated CBO score when you offer something to sweeten it for your own members?” Hastings said.
While the Rules Committee continued to debate amendments to the bill, President Donald Trump continued to court wayward members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus at the White House on Wednesday morning.
The gambit didn’t appear to work. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky urged Freedom Caucus members to oppose the bill on Capitol Hill in a meeting on Wednesday afternoon after they met with the president.
Cruz has warned that Republicans will be a “laughing stock” if they fail to repeal Obamacare.
“We promised to repeal Obamacare and improve health care for Americans,” Freedom Caucus member Justin Amash, R-Mich., said in a tweet. “This bill does neither.”
Underscoring the delicate pathway to victory, participants in the Pence meeting said there were no visible signs of weakened opposition and described one tense moment. Texas’ Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, said White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told them: “We’ve got to do this. I know you don’t like it, but you have to vote for this.”
Weber said fellow Texan Barton bristled at that.
“When somebody tells me I have to do something, odds are really good that I will do exactly the opposite,” Barton said, according to Weber.
Protests began to break out Wednesday in and around the U.S. Capitol and are expected to continue Thursday. Officials said 54 people — many of them in wheelchairs — were arrested Wednesday in the Capitol Rotunda. Chanting “Rather go to jail than die without Medicaid,” the protesters were led out individually or in pairs by members of the U.S. Capitol Police.
Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram Washington Bureau, The Associated Press and The Texas Tribune.