Republicans said Friday they're moving on from health care, but are still working on it
"I know we're going to make a deal on health care, that's such an easy one," Trump said
Republicans insisted they had no “plan B” for their plan to repeal and replace Obamacare. But a few days later, after crashing into what might be the new third rail of American politics, Republicans are talking publicly and privately about … plan B.
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence spoke with several House members over the weekend to discuss a path forward, a senior administration official and Republican official with knowledge of the discussions told CNN. And House Speaker Paul Ryan – despite saying Friday that “Obamacare is the law of the land” – appears ready to keep going as well.
Trump himself isn’t giving up.
“I know we’re going to make a deal on health care, that’s such an easy one,” Trump told a bipartisan group of senators and spouses at a White House reception Tuesday night.
The fact remains, however, that House Republicans aren’t in a different position than they were on Friday. The math is the same. Republican leaders are still struggling to satisfy two diametrically opposed forces: moderates who want to see to government lend more support to middle and low-income people to buy health insurance and conservatives who want to see Obamacare repealed more fully so that even popular regulations like the one requiring insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions disappear.
“At the end of the day, I don’t know that the weekend did much to change anything. I think it was a missed opportunity. I think it was an unforced error,” said Arkansas Republican Rep. Steve Womack.
“We’re mending our wounds right now,” Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican from New York told reporters Tuesday.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday that Trump was being lighthearted when he was talking to the senators.
“I think if you watch the tape it was a lighthearted moment,” Spicer said of Trump’s comments. “He was having a fun time with the senators there.”
But Republicans can’t go back to their voters and say they’ve given up. Moving on from repealing Obamacare would mean Republicans may have to admit defeat and face a sobering new reality, in which, they were not able to deliver on the policy goal that united them and catapulted them to victory in the House in 2010, the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016.
“Opposition to government run health care has been a foundation of the Republican party for three or four generations now, so it is difficult to see House Republicans walk away from efforts to protect the American people from this awful law,” said Michael Steel, former spokesman for ex-House Speaker John Boehner. “At the same time, after last week, it’s difficult to see how the entire conference can find a unified position.”
“I think the divisions that have existed for some time look and feel particularly acute now that we have a Republican President,” Steel added.
White House downplaying role
Those divisions came out perhaps most dramatically when Trump got involved in the negotiations. Now, the White House is keeping its role much lower key than it did during the final push last week and insisting it is letting rank-and-file members of Congress drive discussions on health care, which are ongoing between a small group of House Freedom Caucus members and members of the moderate Tuesday Group.
The senior administration official told CNN that the White House believes its threats to move past health care have helped jolt House GOP members into action.
“All last week he was calling them. Now they’re calling him,” the official said.
White House press secretary Sean Spice publicly downplayed Tuesday any suggestion that there was a concerted effort to resurrect health care, only going as far as saying that there were continued conversations and exchanging of ideas.
“Have we had some discussions and listened to ideas? Yes,” Spicer told reporters in the briefing room. “Are we actively planning an Immediate strategy? Not at this time.”
On Tuesday, House GOP leaders also projected more optimism that something could still be done to dismantle the Affordable Care Act even as the political dynamics remained unchanged.
“I think we’re closer today to repealing Obamacare than we’ve ever been before, and are surely even closer than we were Friday,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise said Tuesday morning.
Ryan vowed members would continue working although he didn’t offer any specific timeline.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was more frank that it was time to get to other issues.
“It’s pretty obvious we were not able, in the House, to pass a replacement. Our Democratic friends ought to be pretty happy about that because we have the existing law in place, and I think we are just going to have to see how that works out,” McConnell said. “We believe it will not work out well, but we’ll see. They have an opportunity now to have the status quo, regretfully.”
McConnell complemented Trump’s and Ryan’s efforts and then concluded his remarks on the debacle with four words: “Sorry that didn’t work.”
GOP base doesn’t want to give up
The concept of giving up is hard for many Republican rank-and-file members to swallow. Those who would have voted yes wish they could have gotten their colleagues there too. Members of the House Freedom Caucus, meanwhile, who were opposed to the bill, are grappling now with public admonishment from their new President.
“We’re gonna get a ‘yes,’ we’re gonna get to ‘yes.’ It will be a better bill and I think everybody is going to be very happy in the end,” said Rep. David Brat, a Republican from Virginia and a member of the Freedom Caucus.
“I think we have plenty of time. We can fix this,” said Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, another House Freedom Caucus member.
Texas Republican Rep. Randy Weber, a member of the House Freedom Caucus who opposed the GOP health care bill said Tuesday he thought that the GOP conference could find a way to get a revised Obamacare bill through the House if they all got in a room and put their heads together.
“We need to stay here on the weekend and have an all-day conference,” Weber said, noting that the one-hour weekly meetings weren’t enough time to work through the sticking points.
Weber, who didn’t vote for Ryan for speaker in January, even complimented Ryan and said that he texted the speaker over the weekend when some conservative media figures pushed for him to step down and told him “don’t even think about it. You’re doing a good job. My prayers and my support are with you.”
Still hard to govern
Womack said Republicans need to keep moving and show they can govern with their majorities in the House and Senate and Trump in the White House.
“The people who were ‘yes’ on the health care bill were reminding Paul this is something we promised and we got to push in that direction,” Womack said. “It’s more a reflection of the need to show that we can do something with our governing majority, but again it comes back to numbers. If you don’t have the votes, you don’t have the votes.”
But Trump and Ryan say they want to go to tax reform next, but that’s not going to be any easier.
“How do you move forward?” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida. “If you can’t do this, can you then do tax reform? If you think this is complicated and controversial, wait ‘til we get into tax reform.”
This story has been updated.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.