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Story highlights

Republican senators are finding it's not so easy to tackle the party's signature campaign issue

One issue: The lack of women in the 13-member health care plan group

(CNN) —  

It wasn’t long after the House finally passed its bill to repeal and replace Obamacare that senators were already vowing to do it their way.

But in the week since, Senate Republicans are quickly coming up against some of the same obstacles that dogged House Republicans – and dealing with new problems of their own creation.

Republican leaders have spent the early days of their Obamacare repeal effort pelted with questions about why they announced a 13-man working group last week that didn’t include a single female senator.

“I would have recommended a little diversity there from a gender perspective,” Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, told reporters Tuesday.

Throughout the health care debate in the House, Republican senators didn’t shy away from criticizing the negotiations happening across the Capitol. More than one senator warned that policies in the House were dead on arrival in the Senate. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul led the press corps in a search for the bill he accused House leaders of keeping under lock and key even from members of the Republican Party. And, just after the House bill was passed, Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted that it should be viewed with extra “caution” having been finalized the night before.

Now in the hot seat, Republican senators are finding it’s not so easy to tackle the party’s signature campaign issue.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to deflect questions about the working group’s lack of women during his weekly press conference Tuesday by arguing that health care would be negotiated between all 52 Republican members of the Senate and that women were invited to speak up on the issue of health care reform whenever they wanted.

“Well, the working group – the working group that counts is all 52 of us and we – we’re having extensive meetings, as I said a few minutes ago, every day. Nobody’s being excluded based upon gender,” McConnell said.

But there was no denying that the working group – which had been intended to help bridge divisions between moderates and conservative s– had morphed into its own story. A GOP leadership aide acknowledged the issue was a “‘distraction’ for Republicans who already have a very difficult task ahead of them.”

Tuesday there was a concerted to shift the optics. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, was invited to speak on the Medicaid program in her state during a health care meeting Tuesday afternoon. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, presented on her state’s high risk pool program during the GOP member luncheon. Vice President Mike Pence even tweeted out a photo of he and Capito talking about health care, a kind of proof of inclusion photograph.

But the issue of including women in the working group only revealed another delicate relationship senators will have to manage in upcoming months: the one with the White House.

Tuesday, the Senate got an early taste of how the White House can insert itself into Capitol Hill negotiations at any moment. As Republican leaders were taking heat for not officially including women in their working group, one senior White House official told CNN that there would be a woman added to the 13-member, all-male group to clear up the optics.

“You’ll see those optics addressed,” the official said.

But as of Tuesday night that announcement hadn’t happened, and Washington became consumed in the political firestorm of the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

The suggestion from the White House followed a familiar pattern from when health care was being debated in the House. Despite GOP congressional aides’ insistence that House leaders set the floor schedule and wouldn’t set a bill on the floor until they were sure they had the votes, the White House often applied pressure to move the legislation along, leaking frequently that a vote on health care was imminent.

Senate Republicans have tried to be clear: They respect the White House’s opinions on policy and process, but need to be given the time to hash out a bill themselves.

“Look, we have to work it our way,” said South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds. “They can help us, they can assist us, they can provide information, they can be responsive to our needs in terms of getting good data, but I think the Senate will work at an appropriate pace.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Senate health committee and member of the health care working group, said that “we’re going to take the time we need to get it right. That is the Senate’s attitude.”

“They know the Senate’s got a unique role to play,” Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota told reporters earlier this week of the White House.

As if managing the optics and the White House’s role weren’t enough, Republicans also have the hard work of actually negotiating a bill between two disparate factions ahead, something they warn could take quite a bit of time. Senators also are waiting for the House bill to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office before they can even really dive in. Under budget reconciliation, the process Republicans are using to pass a bill with just 51 votes, they must have an estimate of how much their House bill will cost before they can commit ideas to paper for their own plan.

Senate aides insist that the process won’t happen overnight. One Republican Senate aide with knowledge of the negotiations told CNN that having health care done by August recess would even be “incredibly optimistic.”

“I think if you were incredibly optimistic, you would have something done by August, and that is if everything goes according to planned and if everyone sitting around the campfire is singing Kumbaya,” the aide said.

CNN’s Ted Barrett, Phil Mattingly and Elizabeth Landers contributed to this report.