By Steve Holland, James Oliphant and Emily Stephenson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump launched a charming offensive of the kind never seen before in his short and chaotic tenure, rallying behind legislation to repeal the Obamacare healthcare bill while trying to placate opponents of the bill.
In doing so, the often stormy Trump faces a credibility test for voters that catapulted him into office: How does an outsider celebrity, the CEO, reach deals in Washington? Does the New York businessman live up to the image of chief negotiator?
Interviews with more than a dozen White House and Congressional aides, members of Congress and conservative activists offer a glimpse into his attempts to carry out the most formidable and high-stakes negotiation of his presidency.
They show a more circumspect Trump than many see publicly. While they acknowledge that he can present his views in a forceful and combustible style, he appears to be listening rather than speaking, they said, trying to appease both supporters and critics by pointing to flexibility over legislation that faces criticism on multiple fronts.
Democrats and some influential Republicans say it would take away health insurance for millions of Americans and increase costs for many others, including voters who helped elect Trump, a problem that could plague fellow Republicans in the 2018 congressional elections. .
Conservatives say it is not going far enough to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama‘s signature health care reform passed by Democrats in 2010. Republicans have long sought to dismantle the law, which they believe a government overreach. Trump has called Obamacare a “disaster” and made its repeal and replacement a key campaign promise.
The political stakes are huge for an eight-week presidency marked by instability, infighting, struggles with the media, questions about temperament and a stubborn investigation into the links between his campaign and Russian intelligence.
“Many times there are politicians who meet in a room to pontificate. That is not why he has brought people together in the room, ”said a senior White House official of Trump’s negotiating style this week. “He has brought people together to hear their opinions. I think he got a bit lost because he speaks very strongly. He definitely lets them say their part, and he listens. “
The president has reached out to influential conservatives like US Senator Ted Cruz and groups like the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity, who have expressed skepticism about the bill.
“He was sociable, reasonable. He listened. It was not a conference, ”said Tim Phillips, president of AFP, a group backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch and part of a small group of conservative leaders who met with Trump in the Oval Office Wednesday night.
“He said, ‘This is a negotiation. Let’s find ways to improve this proposal, ‘”Phillips said of Trump.
Trump has indicated that he will only go so far to make conservatives happy, insisting that core elements of the bill must remain intact if it has any chance of passing in the House of Representatives and then the Senate, both controlled by Republicans. . One sticking point involves the use of tax credits to help consumers buy health insurance, which favors Trump.
“He has made it clear that this is the vehicle to finally undo the damage of Obamacare and revoke and replace it,” said another senior White House official. “And if you can improve in this process, he has encouraged you.”
THIN MARGIN FOR SUCCESS
Trump is operating with a very small margin of success. A defection of about 20 Republicans in the House could dampen prospects for the bill. There is already discontent among some in the Senate, where Republicans have an even slimmer lead. Democrats and groups like AARP, which advocates for older Americans, and the American Medical Association have spoken out strongly against the bill.
Conservatives in the House and advocacy groups opposing the bill would like to delay the process and rework its rationale. They argue that the legislation preserves the basics of Obamacare, including federal assistance to buy health insurance and penalties if coverage expires.
House Speaker Paul Ryan hopes to pass the legislation within two weeks so the House can move on to other priorities. That leaves little time for wholesale modifications.
Rep. Kevin Brady, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he expected the bill to remain largely in its current form. “I know a lot of people have good ideas. That is fantastic. And those will fit into future bills. “
The White House has tried to persuade conservatives that the House bill is just the first step in a three-step process, and will soon be joined by a companion bill that would encompass some of its political priorities. Regulations set by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price will also address their concerns, attendees said.
The challenge for Trump is whether he can convince enough cautious conservatives to back the first step of the plan without being able to guarantee that the other phases are met. It could leave them on the record voting for a bill that they don’t believe would adequately dismantle Obamacare.
Some conservatives may also not see the point of risking backing a bill that could die in the Senate.
“This is a futile effort,” said Rachel Bovard, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, who opposes the bill.
‘MAKING PEOPLE FEEL LOVED’
The White House is aggressively defending that the House bill is the best chance to end Obamacare.
Moving too far to the right to placate conservatives could arouse opposition from moderate Republicans and lead to a bill that fuels a powerful backlash among millions of Americans who would lose health insurance, including many Republicans. Many Democrats are already planning to campaign on the issue.
The White House was busy this week trying to reassure moderate Republicans as well.
Vice President Mike Pence is holding meetings in Congress, including with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said a Republican aide. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, a former member of the House, invited conservative lawmakers to dinner at the White House next Tuesday.
Trump plans to harness the power of his office in another way, making trips to Kentucky and Tennessee in the coming days to sell the House bill to the American public.
Earlier this week, Trump welcomed about 30 Republican members to the House, many of whom said they had never been in the White House before, a style contrast to Obama, who was often criticized for not trying to get involved. more fully with Congress. In the East Room, Trump told them to come back every week.
Grover Norquist, a longtime conservative tax advocate, praised Trump’s strategy, saying, “He’s making people feel loved and appreciated and part of the team.”