Donald Trump’s chief lieutenants came to Capitol Hill on Thursday evening with an ultimatum: There will be a vote on Paul Ryan’s health care legislation on Friday, and if it fails Obamacare will remain law.
Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus and Mick Mulvaney were dispatched from the White House to tell House Republicans that if the bill passes, it will move on to the Senate. If it fails, the White House is prepared to move on from one of its biggest campaign promises and keep Barack Obama’s signature health care legislation.
“Tomorrow, tomorrow, we will have a vote tomorrow,” Bannon said.
The gambit is a high-stakes political scare tactic. White House leaders are warning rank-and-file members of Congress that if they vote against the bill on political principle, they will be responsible for keeping Obamacare on the books, not President Trump.
“It’s done tomorrow or Obamacare stays,” said Rep. Chris Collins of New York after House Republicans met with Bannon, Preibus and Mulvaney. “We are done negotiating, there are no more negotiations.”
In an effort to shore up votes before the bill hits the House floor, Republican leaders offered one final amendment. The four-page proposal repeals essential health care benefits and adds a Medicare surcharge for the wealthy that will create a $15 billion flexibility fund.
“It’s a fact of life that negotiations seem to be closing,” said Republican Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a moderate who does not support the bill. “They will call the roll, and that’ll be that.”
The amendment comes after a scheduled vote on the bill was delayed on Thursday afternoon as Trump, who touts himself as a deal-maker, was unable to convince skeptical lawmakers to support the much-maligned legislation after multiple meetings with House Republicans at the White House.
The delay means Republican leaders failed to pass the bill on the seven-year anniversary of the Affordable Care Act’s passage, what was supposed to be a symbolic policy triumph for a GOP-led Congress and White House.
Instead, members will vote on Friday.
“We are trying to get 30 to 40 no votes to yes,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., to reporters after a closed-door meeting earlier Thursday with members of the Freedom Caucus, a conservative group of lawmakers who have concerns about the bill. “I’d like to see 237 votes but we are not at that particular point.”
But other conservative factions continue to oppose the bill. The Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative group, urged members to vote against the legislation.
In a circus-like atmosphere throughout Capitol Hill, members shuttled to and from various rooms for meetings with Ryan and leadership throughout the day along with trekking down Pennsylvania Avenue to meet with Trump.
Few seemed to know exactly what was going on.
All Democrats are against the bill, so Ryan can only afford about 20 defections from his own party, depending on how many members are present to vote. The current defections include conservative and moderate Republicans. Conservatives do not support provisions in the bill that mandate insurance companies cover certain health services because the coverage would increase premium costs. Moderates are opposed to the bill after it was revealed that some low-income individuals will lose health insurance under the plan.
“Every moment we go past midnight tonight, I think the chances of passing this bill get less, not greater,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., after meeting with Ryan. “The window for making decisions is rapidly closing. We need a vote or go home.”
Byrne warned that too many amendments from conservatives and moderates could make the legislation even less popular than it already is.
“Two groups that don’t represent even a majority of the Republican conference have been given every opportunity to have multiple conversations with the president and leadership,” Byrne said. “At some point you’ve got to say, ‘That’s it.’ And we’re at that point.”
Trump’s skills as a deal-maker took a hit when he failed to convince the chairman of the Freedom Caucus to support the health care bill earlier on Thursday. Meadows declared that “no deal” was reached after meeting with Trump in the Cabinet room of the White House just hours before the House postponed the vote.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted Thursday afternoon the bill was not in trouble and that they were never seeking a so-called deal.
Spicer did not provide details of the meetings other than to say that both the president and the Freedom Caucus are committed to implementing a system that will drive down costs and increase access to healthcare.
Asked during the press briefing, whether Trump was willing to do away with elements of the pre-existing protection as conservatives have pressed, Spicer said the president has made clear those protection must remain.
Asked about Trump’s ability to strike a deal, Spicer defended the work of his boss, but said he can’t force members to vote.
“The president has done a phenomenal job, there’s no question,” Spicer said. “And I think when you look at the effort that he’s put in, the number of meetings that he’s had, and the changes that have been made to the bill, there’s no question how hard the president and his team, the vice president have worked to get this done.”
“And it’s in response – at the end of the day we can’t force somebody to vote, but I think ... I like the direction that this thing is going. I think that we continue to see support go with us,” he said.
Spicer went on to say that Trump had been on the phone with scores of Republican members, in addition to the in-persons meetings with the Republican Study Committee, the House Freedom Caucus and the Tuesday Group. He called the bill a truly “collaborative effort” from the beginning.
“Through an open and deliberative process, the president and his team have helped to negotiate a very, very strong bill,” Spicer said. “He was on the phone last night well into the 11 o’clock hour with members on an individual basis, discussing their support for the bill.
Trump meanwhile took to Twitter to call on supporters to call their representatives to vote for the bill. Spicer called out Republicans who repeatedly voted to overturn Obamacare so they could brag to constituents.
“This is a live ball now,” Spicer said. “This is for real, and we’re going to do what we pledged to the American people and keep our word.”
Raising questions about the lines of communication between Republican leaders and the White House, word began leaking out around 1 p.m. after a leadership meeting that the vote was likely to be delayed. But during the briefing Spicer continued to say the vote was “tonight” and that he did not know of any plans to delay the vote.
Republicans have been working for seven years to undo former President Barack Obama’s signature policy achievement, and argued that Democrats used their majorities in both houses at the time to slam Obamacare through. Democrats are now accusing Republicans of trying to do the same, holding hearings on the bill before the Congressional Budget Office could determine how the AHCA would impact current coverage. An eventual CBO assessment predicted the Republican plan would make 24 million people uninsured by 2026.
Over the past several days Trump has lobbied members of Congress to support the bill, to help him fulfill his key campaign promise to repeal and replace Obamacare. Trump pledged his new bill would cost people much less for insurance plans and it would ensure “insurance for everybody.” In its current form, the AHCA does not guarantee either of those conditions will be met.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a leading voice against the legislation, said House conservatives are doing “an outstanding job” in lobbying against the bill.
A Congressional Budget Office score to a batch of amendments offered by leadership saw a reduction in decreases to the federal deficit but health coverage and premium rates are relatively unchanged.
“The plea is within our membership to come together,” Collins said. “It’s hard to govern, we’ve been in the opposition party for eight years. Let’s come together, this is our moment.”
After the announcement that the vote would be delayed, the White House gave its ultimatum. The amendment will be voted on Friday morning with a vote on the bill expected mid-afternoon.
“Getting this right is more important than getting it done on a particular anniversary date,” said Rep. Daniel Donovan of New York, a moderate Republican who does not support the bill. “When it’s done right we’ll have our own anniversary date.”
If Ryan eventually gets the bill approved on the House floor, it faces an uphill battle in the Senate.
Curtis Tate, Anna Douglas, Lindsay Wise and Franco Ordoñez contributed to this report.