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WASHINGTON — President Trump couldn’t close the deal — not even within his own party, not even with Republicans in full control of the White House and Congress, not even on something the GOP vowed in every election since 2010: repealing and replacing Obamacare.
Long on promises and short on votes from their majority, Republican leaders of the House of Representatives abruptly scrapped a scheduled 3:30 p.m. vote Friday on the American Health Care Act (AHCA) in what amounted to the first major legislative defeat of Trump’s young presidency.
It was unclear what the AHCA’s collapse would mean, if anything, for Trump’s other big congressional priorities, like overhauling the tax code, revamping the nation’s infrastructure and pursuing changes to immigration law. But it showed that while Republicans enjoy a 44-seat advantage in the House and four-seat margin in the Senate, the notion of unified GOP control of Washington was always an illusion.
“We will probably start going very, very strongly for the big tax cuts and tax reform — that will be next,” Trump told reporters shortly after the announcement. And the president took pains to praise Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose help he’ll need for his other ambitious legislative projects.
“I like Speaker Ryan. He worked very hard,” he said.
The setback dented Trump’s “Art of The Deal” mystique, a central part of his appeal in the 2016 campaign. “Nobody knows the system better than me,” he declared in his Republican convention keynote speech last summer. “Which is why I alone can fix it.”
That bravado gave way a bit in late February, when Trump declared that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”
Whatever the policy and political reasons for the AHCA’s demise, the defeat was an intensely personal one for the president. It came after he met repeatedly with scores of wary House Republicans, discussed the proposal on the phone with them, sent top aides, including Vice President Mike Pence, to win them over and (of course) prodded them over Twitter.
The irony is that the Freedom Caucus, which is very pro-life and against Planned Parenthood, allows P.P. to continue if they stop this plan!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 24, 2017
“We came really close today, but we came up short,” Ryan told reporters after the canceled vote. “Moving from an opposition party to a governing party comes with growing pains. And well, we’re feeling those growing pains today.”
Trump, who told reporters that the GOP bill ultimately fell 10 to 15 votes short, had tried to sweeten the pot by green-lighting changes to the legislation. He threatened insurgent GOP lawmakers with the prospect of losses in 2018 primaries if they did not fall in line. He bluntly warned them not to squander what he characterized as their best shot at repealing Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement. Top aides fanned out on regional media and prowled the halls of Congress for converts.
“Has he done every single thing? Has he pulled out every stop? Has he called every member? Has he tweaked every tweak? Has he done every single thing he can possibly and used every minute of every day that’s possible to get this thing through?” White House press secretary Sean Spicer asked Friday at this daily briefing for reporters. “The answer is yes.”
But, Spicer said, “at the end of the day, this isn’t a dictatorship.”
Still, the campaign sometimes felt rushed — especially in contrast to Obama’s months-long drive for the Affordable Care Act, with its scores of hearings, public debates with Republican leaders, and a speech to a joint meeting of Congress. The White House and Republican leaders, seeking a symbolic show of political force, initially raced to hold the vote on Thursday, the anniversary of Obama’s signing of his project into law. “That was f***ing cart-before-the-horse hubris,” an aide to a Republican senator told Yahoo News.
And Trump did not do much to publicly defend the legislation on policy grounds, except to declare that Democrats would come begging to work with him when Obamacare implodes “soon” — a contention rejected by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which found that the Republican plan would leave 24 million more Americans without insurance by 2026 compared to the current system.
The president returned to that argument on Friday.
“I worked as a team player and would’ve loved to see this pass, but again, I think you know I was very clear: There wasn’t a speech I made, very few, where I didn’t say that the best thing that could happen is the thing that happened today,” Trump said. “We will have a truly great health care bill in the future after this mess known as Obamacare explodes.”
Still, he said, there was no denying that he was “disappointed” that the conservative House Freedom Caucus resisted his advances. “I’m a little surprised, to be honest with you. We really had it. It was pretty much there within [our] grasp.”
From the White House podium, Spicer had repeatedly rebuked Republicans who lined up in 2015 behind a bill to fully repeal Obamacare — accusing them of taking “free votes” in Congress when they knew Obama would veto the legislation.
“Since 2010, every Republican — with the exception of probably a handful — has campaigned from dogcatcher on up [on a promise] that they would do everything they could to repeal and replace Obamacare,” the White House spokesman said Friday.
On Thursday, Spicer had told reluctant Republicans: “You’ve taken a bunch of these free votes when it didn’t matter because you didn’t have a Republican president. And you got to vote for repeal and go back and tell your constituents something like 50 times. Well, this is a live ball now.”
Dropping that live ball spared Republican lawmakers from voting on a broadly unpopular piece of legislation that was sure to turn up in midterm campaign ads ahead of the 2018 elections. One GOP leadership aide told Yahoo News on condition of anonymity that at least Ryan had avoided making his majority pointlessly walk the plank on legislation that seemed unlikely to clear the Senate, where key conservatives opposed it.
“We’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future,” Ryan told reporters Friday. “This is a setback. No two ways about it. But it is not the end of this story.”
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