By David Morgan and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and House leaders lobbied Wednesday for a vote on their plan to reform Obamacare, saying they were making progress in their efforts to win over conservative Republicans who they have demanded changes in the legislation.
With a vote on the bill possible as early as Thursday, members of the House Freedom Caucus, a conservative Republican faction, said they had been negotiating alterations to the plan with the White House.
Much of the discussion revolved around conservatives’ desire to eliminate what are called “essential health benefits,” services that insurance plans must cover under the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, such as aid for Mental health.
“I can tell you that we are making great progress,” Mark Meadows, chairman of the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus, told reporters. “We have not arrived yet. But we are hopeful.”
But as the president courted conservatives, the bill appeared to be losing steam among moderate Republicans, some of whom attended a meeting Wednesday night in the office of Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan. Representative Charlie Dent, leader of the House “Tuesday Group” of moderate Republicans, issued a statement saying he could not endorse the bill.
“I believe that this bill, in its current form, will lead to loss of coverage and make insurance unaffordable for too many Americans, particularly low to moderate income seniors,” Dent said in the statement.
The chairman of the House Rules Committee, which met all day Wednesday to set the rules for the bill’s consideration in the House plenary, said late Wednesday that the panel would resume its meeting on Thursday, without having made a final decision on the timing of the meeting. vote on the floor.
Repealing and replacing former Democratic President Barack Obama‘s Affordable Care Act of 2010 is an important first test of Trump’s legislative ability and whether he can deliver on his big promises to business.
Plans aired by Trump during his election campaign and his first two months in office pushed US equity markets to new highs. But stocks fell sharply on Tuesday as investors worried that a tough ride for healthcare legislation could affect its ability to meet other big aspects of its agenda, from cutting taxes and regulations to boosting infrastructure.
Major stock indices wobbled on Wednesday, ending slightly lower and slightly higher. Investors eagerly await Thursday’s health vote, which could be critical to Trump’s broader plans.
The Freedom Caucus has opposed the bill because its members believe it is still too close to Obamacare.
Rep. Steve King, a conservative who was among lawmakers who met with Trump Wednesday morning at the White House, said he would now vote on the bill because he got Trump’s commitment to publicly advocate for a change in the law. legislation when it reaches the Senate. eliminating essential benefits, which also include emergency room visits and maternity and newborn care.
“I have a full and firm commitment to many witnesses to President Trump,” King said in a video statement on YouTube.
Meadows said members of the Freedom Caucus had also discussed essential benefits with the administration. Conservatives say reducing or eliminating mandates would lower insurance premiums.
On the other hand, patient advocates say not requiring the coverage would hurt both individuals and health care providers.
“It could leave countless people with too little coverage to meet their health care needs and drive higher rates of uncompensated care in hospitals already struggling to cover their costs,” said Bruce Siegel, president of America’s Essential Hospitals, in a statement. .
Earlier on Wednesday, a Freedom Caucus aide said more than 25 of its members opposed it, enough to prevent the bill from passing. Republicans cannot afford to lose more than 21 votes from their own party, as Democrats are united in opposition.
Meanwhile, Democrats said amending the bill in the Senate would affect procedure and increase the number of votes Republicans would need in that chamber. Currently, Republicans intend to pass the plan through budget reconciliation, a process with little room for change that only requires a simple majority to pass.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders also signaled that negotiations were moving forward late Wednesday.
“We keep moving forward and adding new fans constantly,” he said. “As we have indicated previously, we are open to changes in the bill that improve it and increase your support.”
The main goal of the legislation Obama signed, passed in 2010, was to reduce the number of Americans without health coverage. Twenty million people got insurance under the law.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated 14 million people would lose coverage under the Republican plan for next year. He also said 24 million fewer people would be insured by 2026.
The Republican plan would also rescind taxes created by Obamacare, revoke penalties for not buying coverage, cut funding for the Medicaid program for the poor and modify subsidies that help people buy plans.
In the two weeks since it was released, the shares of some hospital operators and health insurers have fallen more than 10 percent.
If the health bill passes the House, the Senate could address it next week. Republican leaders hope that if the Senate acts quickly, the bill could return to the House for a final vote in mid-April, possibly allowing Trump to sign it into law by Easter April 16.
Opponents of the reform have spoken out fiercely and on Wednesday protesters, many in wheelchairs or with serious medical problems, blocked the Capitol Rotunda for about an hour.
“I’d rather go to jail than die without Medicaid,” they chanted.
Capitol Police said they made 54 arrests and later released the protesters.