By Alexander Bolton - 07-19-17 06:00 AM EDT
Tensions are bubbling over between President Trump and Senate Republicans.
White House officials are blaming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for getting stuffed at the goal line on ObamaCare repeal-and-replace legislation, while GOP senators say Trump failed to provide any meaningful political momentum for the prized measure.
"He was of no help," grumbled one GOP senator, who doubted that Trump would have done much to defend lawmakers from political attacks if the bill passed.
A member of Trump's team says their boss bears no responsibility for the embarrassing loss because McConnell was in charge of putting together a Senate package.
"This was McConnell's deal," said a White House official when asked what went wrong.
After McConnell conceded Monday night that he did not have enough votes to pass the Senate version of the healthcare bill, he suffered another defeat Tuesday when GOP colleagues quickly smacked down his backup plan: pass the ObamaCare repeal-only bill that cleared the Senate and House in 2015.
But a senior Senate Republican aide bristled at the notion that McConnell fumbled the ball.
"Repeal-only is what Leader McConnell wanted to do in January. The president wanted to do repeal and replace," the aide said.
McConnell told reporters in January that the GOP healthcare bill would closely resemble the repeal-only bill, which the Republican-controlled Senate and House passed two years ago but then-President Obama vetoed.
At the time, McConnell and other GOP leaders were debating whether to set up a two- or three-year transition period to give themselves time to come up with replacement legislation.
Trump, however, put pressure on Congress to keep ObamaCare's most popular provisions: protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions and the ability of young adults to stay on their parents' health insurance until age 26.
He was backed up by centrists such as Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who said it would be better to have a detailed plan for replacing the law before repealing it.
Now, Trump is calling on Congress to let ObamaCare fail, raising the possibility the White House will stop making cost-sharing reduction payments, which insurance companies use to help low-income people afford insurance.
"As I have always said, let ObamaCare fail and then come together and do a great healthcare plan. Stay tuned!" the president tweeted Tuesday.
Just floating the notion angered some GOP senators.
"He's the president of the United States. These people are folks who are looking to him to help them," said a second Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss Trump's stance frankly.
The lawmaker said that Trump can't simply let the law fail and leave millions of people without insurance options just because "of something that past president did," referring to Obama.
Trump is scheduled to host the Senate GOP conference for lunch at the White House on Wednesday.
Tensions between Trump and Senate Republicans have been a theme of the months-long effort to win passage of the healthcare legislation.
After an initial Senate bill was revealed, allies of Trump ran scathing television and radio ads attacking Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who had announced his opposition to the measure. Heller is considered the most vulnerable Senate Republican up for reelection next year.
McConnell immediately called White House chief of staff Reince Priebus to complain that the attack ads were counterproductive and only threatened to push Heller further away.
As McConnell tried again to win enough GOP votes for the healthcare bill, it was revealed that two Republicans mulling primary challenges against Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of Trump's most outspoken critics in the 2016 presidential campaign, had talked to White House officials about their potential bids.
Trump exasperated McConnell last month when he tweeted that Republican senators should immediately repeal ObamaCare and work on replacement legislation at a later date if they could not get their bill, the Better Care Reconciliation Act, over the finish line.
Republican sources close to McConnell complained that it gave conservatives such as Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) "a place to go" if they opposed the Senate bill.
Lee helped drive a stake through the foundering bill Monday when he announced he would vote against the motion to proceed to it, surprising White House officials and Senate Republican leaders alike.
McConnell had argued to his colleagues that if they voted against the Senate bill, they would be voting to keep ObamaCare as the status quo and that Republican leaders would be forced to negotiate with Democrats to shore up ObamaCare's ailing insurance markets.
While Vice President Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price met with governors over the weekend to build support for the Senate healthcare bill, GOP senators complained the president did little to build public support for the legislation.
To an extent, the Senate GOP's annoyance with Trump has been tempered by its low expectations.
"People expect that. It's already baked," the first GOP lawmaker said of Trump's actions.
Trump's defenders in the Senate point out that he made efforts to corral wavering senators.
He invited all 52 members of the Senate Republican Conference for a meeting shortly before the July Fourth recess to give them a pep talk and also invited moderates and conservatives to sit down with him over lunch to discuss their concerns with the legislation.
Other actions by Trump have irked many GOP senators.
The president's repeated calls to change the Senate's rules and eliminate the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to circumvent, was one aggravation.
Senators saw this as meddling in procedural questions, which McConnell has repeatedly argued are the Senate's prerogative.
They also said it showed Trump's ignorance of how the Senate works.
McConnell has planned all along to pass healthcare reform and tax reform under budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority to pass. Getting rid of the filibuster would do little, if anything, to help Republicans pass a bill to repeal and replace ObamaCare.
Trump peeved other Republican senators earlier this month when he pressured them to cancel their August recess, a mid-year break that is usually sacrosanct.
"I cannot imagine that Congress would dare to leave Washington without a beautiful new HealthCare bill fully approved and ready to go!" he tweeted.
McConnell relented soon after and agreed to cut the first two weeks of the five-week August recess.
A rumor is now circulating within the Senate Republican Conference that Trump is likely to up the ante by calling on senators not to take any recess in August until they pass healthcare legislation, a scenario that is unpopular with many lawmakers.
Niall Stanage contributed.