Washington (CNN)President Donald Trump wants to pass health care reform. But his most consequential action on the issue this month -- calling the bill the House passed "mean" in a private meeting with Senate Republicans -- has only made things more difficult.
Trump calls GOP health care bill 'mean' and Democrats pounce, Republicans worry
Trump's comment was not entirely off-the-cuff. The President, those close to him say, has read coverage about how health care reform could kick millions off health insurance and slash Medicaid spending and hike premiums for older Americans -- and has taken the implications of the bill to heart. Before the meeting in which he called the bill "mean," Trump publicly said the Senate should spend more to make the plan "generous, kind (and) with heart."
But by describing the House bill as "mean," Trump has both armed Democrats with a powerful tool to rally their base and caused skeptical Republicans, especially those who Trump will soon ask to go out on a limb for the bill, to question their loyalty to a President who hasn't been consistent on this issue. The calculation for those Republicans goes like this: Why endanger yourself for a unpopular bill that the President will decry it mere weeks after he celebrates it?
After all, Trump touted the House GOP health care bill when it passed last month in a celebration at the White House, where he called it "incredibly well-crafted."
The Senate is currently hammering out the health care deal behind closed doors, a fact Senate Democrats have slammed. White House officials have worked with the Senate on the plan -- making clear what the President wants in the negotiations -- but a White House aide bluntly said this week that they view the bill as being "in (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell's hands."
"We are talking to the people we need to," this official said, "but no one knows the Senate better than Mitch McConnell."
The President's "mean" comment, though, has not only undermined his negotiating power in the upcoming Senate discussions, it has also left House Republicans scratching their heads about how Trump could have sold a bill that he thought was "mean."
Trump had applauded the last-minute deal that allowed states to waive requirements that insurers cover essential health benefits, and a key protection for people with pre-existing conditions known as community rating. It was that deal that ultimately brought the House Freedom Caucus on board, and it was that deal that left moderates walking away from the legislation.
But time and time again, in closed-door meetings, Trump tried to convince moderates that the House bill was the right way forward.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican and member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, was flummoxed when CNN asked him what he thought of the President calling the bill "mean."
"The one," he asked, "that he had us come over and celebrate?"
Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate from Pennsylvania who voted against the House health care bill, said that many members were "taken aback" when they read what the President said.
"For those who voted 'yes' on the House health care bill, I suspect they will be a bit more wary on future high-profile, highly controversial matters," Dent said. "They will be more cautious. It's a fact."
He added, "A lot of members in the House are unhappy about the comments particularly those who were 'yes' votes. You don't have to be very bright to figure out how to write a campaign ad off that."
And Rep. Lee Zeldin, a New York Republican who voted for the health care plan, said he heard "nothing anywhere near" the kind of analysis of the bill that Trump gave privately in a recent dinner with the President.
"There were no signs that he was anything other than full speed ahead," Zeldin said, dodging questions about whether the comment hurts the process.
And Trump is up against an even tougher audience in the Senate. Unlike many House conservatives who were early and enthusiastic backers of the President during the Republican primary, moderate and conservative senators alike publicly admonished Trump during the campaign.
If Republican senators vote for the Senate health care bill, it's likely to show Republican unity and make good on a seven-year campaign promise -- not to go out on a limb for a President they know now could throw them under the bus of public opinion on their Obamacare repeal bill slips.
With that new audience before him earlier this month, Trump tried to take a different tact.
"Generous, kind, with heart. That is what I am saying," Trump said during a White House meeting earlier this month with an eclectic group of senators. "And that may be adding additional money into it. We are going to come out with a real bill, not Obamacare."
The White House has since tried to avoid weighing in on the "mean" comment. Press Secretary Sean Spicer avoided the question on Monday, and a White House official said after the meeting that they weren't "going to comment on rumors about private conversations that may or may not have happened."
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democrats see Trump's words as an opening to undercut Republican support for the heretofore private bill.
According to multiple Democratic aides, Schumer and other Democrats will use Trump's remarks -- which were largely overshadowed by the shooting of a congressman and four others last week at an Alexandria baseball practice -- during Senate floor speeches, on social media and at press events throughout the week.
The hope is that the attacks will not only rally Democratic support, but most importantly sow doubt among Republicans who are considering going out on a limb for Trump.
Schumer and Democrats will cast the bill's cuts to health care, the increase to premiums on older Americans and cutting preexisting conditions as "mean," using Trump's work against him in an effort to deny him a key legislative achievement.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi got in on the action on Monday too, anticipating that whatever bill passes the Senate will likely have to come back to the House.
"One month ago, Republicans threw a party at the WH to celebrate their "mean" bill that would strip health care from millions. #Trumpcare," she wrote.