By Karoun Demirjian
Top Trump administration officials insisted Sunday that the odds of passing health-care legislation when the Senate returns to Washington next week remain high, but others in the GOP charged that the bill’s problems require more than a quick fix.
Health and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Price and White House legislative affairs director Marc Short are fighting off a tide of discontent that has been exacerbated in recent days by President Donald Trump’s tweet that the Senate could simply repeal Obamacare and replace it later if it cannot pass the pending measure.
Price and Short both argued in television appearances Sunday that Trump doesn’t actually endorse the staggered approach. They said Trump was working the phones this weekend to urge senators to get on board with the Senate bill.
Still, Trump’s comment - a sharp departure from his campaign promises - is undercutting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s efforts to collect 50 GOP votes to support the current bill. Conservative Republicans are calling for separate efforts, urging quick action to undo Obamacare to allow more time for the difficult endeavor of structuring its replacement.
Those senators are still divided, however, on whether the replacement must be devised now or sometime in the future.
“I want repeal to work, and the way you do it is you separate into two bills and you do it concurrently,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who declared on Fox News Sunday that “we are at an impasse” with the current health-care bill before the Senate.
“We should do repeal with a delay,” Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said on CNN Sunday, saying that he was still willing to give the Senate bill another week before declaring it dead.
In an appearance on Face the Nation, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, also endorsed repealing Obamacare with a “delayed implementation” that would give lawmakers time to craft a replacement, noting that approach might be “easier.”
“Sometimes when you lump too many things into one piece of legislation, you doom its chances of success,” Lee said. “That might be where we are.”
Lee is also one of the senators pushing a change to current legislation to insist that every state have at least one Obamacare-compliant insurance plan, in exchange for lifting the rules on the others. Short endorsed that change on Sunday, calling it “perfectly appropriate,” and “part of the process of bringing everybody together.”
But Republicans from the other side of the party spectrum are also distancing themselves from the Senate bill, as Democrats suggest they are ready for a bipartisan approach.
Last week, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., asked the president to relaunch the health-care push in a bipartisan fashion, declaring that Democrats are ready to work across the aisle.
Trump surrogates scoffed at that offer Sunday, with Short declaring that “Senator Schumer might talk about bipartisanship, but he has no interest in bipartisanship whatsoever.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., used a Sunday appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to hawk the health-care proposal he drafted with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, which they say was designed to build bipartisan support. Both have been skeptical of the current Senate bill. But on Sunday, Cassidy said he too is skeptical that Democrats are serious about cooperation.
“Until a Democrat says they are willing to sign on to the Patient Freedom Act, which allows a blue state to do what they’re doing now, but allows a red state to do something different, I’m not sure we’re ready for bipartisanship,” Cassidy said.
Trump administration officials identified three areas that could need last-minute changes to win a more favorable impact score from the Congressional Budget Office and more support from members. Price said the administration and lawmakers are working to ensure that individuals transitioning off Medicaid do not fall through the cracks, that more coverage options are available and that opioid abuse is addressed.
Not all Republicans are convinced that those efforts will help. In an appearance on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, warned against “efforts to try to buy people off” with little, last-minute fixes to things like opioid abuse programs that he called “anemic. It’s like spitting in the ocean. It’s not enough.”
Kasich had harsh words for both Democrats and Republicans, excoriating them for being too consumed with politics to be anything but shortsighted and disingenuous when it comes to fixing the health-care system, and complaining that “sometimes my party asks too much.”
“Right now, they’re not ready, they are not ready to sit down and put the nation first in my opinion,” Kasich said of congressional lawmakers. His problems with the bill, he said, cover “the whole package.”