By Mike Lillis - 04-26-17 15:04 PM EDT
Trump administration officials have told Democrats they will continue paying controversial ObamaCare insurer subsidies, easing fears that a fight over the issue could lead to a government shutdown.
The move marks something of a shift for President Trump, who had threatened earlier this month to withhold the subsidies, known as cost-sharing reductions (CSRs), as a way to force Democrats to negotiate on healthcare reform.
Democratic leaders, led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), had said they'd oppose a government spending bill unless they receive specific language ensuring the continuation of the subsidy payments, which are currently the subject of a lawsuit by House Republicans. GOP leaders had rejected the demand.
But Pelosi, who spoke with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus twice Wednesday, issued a brief statement afterward suggesting she'll accept Trump's unilateral offer, bringing the sides closer to a deal. The White House has also reportedly backed down from demanding money for Trump's promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Our major concerns in these negotiations have been about funding for the wall and uncertainty about the CSR payments crucial to the stability of the marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act," Pelosi said. "We've now made progress on both of these fronts."
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) also praised the development as "good news" amid the negotiations.
Other Democrats, however, are not so ready to take the president at his word.
"He has flip-flopped on almost every single statement, every single sentence, every single tweet. Personally, I do not trust anything he says," Rep. Tony C rdenas (D-Calif.) said Wednesday, rejecting the idea that Democrats would accept a White House offer without legislative language to back it up.
"I would like to see it in writing; I'd love to see it done through legislation."
A White House aide, confirming the offer, also suggested it may not be the last word - a statement that will likely provoke liberal critics.
"While we agreed to go ahead and make the CSR payments for now, we haven't made a final decision about future commitments," the official said in an email.
Given the uncertainty surrounding the White House's position, the country's top health insurance trade group said the deal falls short.
"The American people need Congress to fund CSRs now," Kristine Grow, spokeswoman for America's Health Insurance Plans, said in an email.
Trump's offer, first reported by Politico, comes as bipartisan negotiators say they're close to a deal that would fund the government for the remainder of fiscal year 2017, which runs through Sept. 30. The ObamaCare subsidies have been perhaps the highest hurdle preventing negotiators from finalizing a deal, though Pelosi and Schumer emphasized that other sticking points remain.
Congress will likely need to pass a one-week continuing resolution by Friday to buy negotiators more time to work out final details of the funding deal. The House is scheduled to leave Washington for another weeklong recess starting May 4.
Trump and other Republicans have spent years bashing the healthcare law enacted by former President Barack Obama, and they've been loath to validate the subsides by providing new language in this month's spending bill.
Indeed, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) shot down the notion on Wednesday morning.
"We're not doing that," Ryan told reporters in the Capitol. "That is not in the appropriation bill. That's something separate that the administration does."
But Pelosi has demanded such a provision ever since Trump threatened earlier in the month to cancel the payments, a move that would cause turmoil in the insurance markets and likely lead to the loss of coverage for millions of low-income Americans.
The Democratic leader spoke with Mick Mulvaney, Trump's budget director, Tuesday night, when she amplified her message that she wouldn't support a spending bill without language locking in the subsidy payments. Pelosi said Mulvaney vowed to stop the payments absent congressional action, a claim the budget director denied.
Pelosi's tactics have split House Democrats, with Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), her top lieutenant, warning that Congress need not act on cost-sharing reductions in the spending bill because the existing law already provides for the payments.
Adding new language, he and other Democrats have warned, would both weaken the Democrats' hand and risk creating a situation in which Congress has to return to the funding question every few years, threatening a central piece of ObamaCare at each juncture.
"Why would we negotiate something that the president, by duty, should be doing on his own?" asked Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who spoke up on the issue during a closed-door meeting of the House Democratic Caucus on Wednesday morning.
"We should not be giving away any points of leverage, and I think we're actually positioning ourselves in a weak spot when it comes to negotiations by doing that."
"We're creating a situation [like] another doc fix," echoed Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). "So every year, we'd have to face this."
The White House offer represented validation for Hoyer's position, and the minority whip was quick to take a victory lap.
"I am pleased that the White House confirmed what I've been asking for: that they will uphold their commitment under the law to continue making cost sharing reduction payments," Hoyer said in a statement. "Now, it is incumbent upon House Republicans to withdraw their lawsuit that seeks to block these payments."
Still, many other Democrats had adopted Pelosi's position, arguing that the legislative fix is the only sure way to ensure Democrats will support the measure.
"I think you will find that many Democrats would be opposed to voting for a [continuing resolution] if the cost-sharing ... language is not included," Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Wednesday.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said Trump's unpredictability means the Democrats should insist on clarifying the subsidy language.
"Hoyer makes a good point. It's already in the law. The problem is that this is Donald Trump - any conventional interpretation of how things should be needs to be thrown out of the window," Cleaver said.
"At this point in our history, it doesn't hurt to have a double law," he added. "You've got a law saying that this thing exists, and then you put another one saying we really mean it."
Peter Sullivan and Scott Wong contributed. Updated at 5:51 p.m.