WASHINGTON (AP) — If congressional Republicans succeed in repealing and replacing “Obamacare,” expect a big Rose Garden celebration with President Donald Trump taking credit.
If they fail? Trump has already indicated he will hold Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell responsible, setting up an intraparty blame game that could be devastating for the GOP.
Trump made it clear this week the onus for delivering a major Republican achievement and fulfilling seven years of GOP promises is on the six-term Kentucky senator, who is battle-hardened by legislative negotiating — not on the president and author of “The Art of the Deal.”
“Mitch has to pull it off. He’s working very hard. He’s got to pull it off,” Trump said in an interview for the Christian Broadcasting Network’s “The 700 Club.”
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Trump has cast himself as a bystander in the months-long process, saying he’s sitting in the Oval Office waiting to sign a bill erasing much of the 2010 Obamacare law. He is reminding GOP lawmakers who promised so often to repeal and replace, and voted repeatedly but never finally to do it, that they better not blow this best shot.
And if they do, “I will be very angry about it, and a lot of people will be very upset,” the president says.
After brokering deals with individual lawmakers before a health care bill barely made it through the House in May, Trump has largely stayed on the sidelines as the Senate has dealt with the issue.
That’s partly because McConnell had made his preference clear that Trump keep out of Senate business, according to associates. Trump has mostly acceded to the request, partly because McConnell had earned his respect by shepherding conservative jurist Neil Gorsuch to Supreme Court confirmation in April. That still stands as Trump’s most significant achievement since taking office.
But McConnell’s stewardship of the health care issue has proved less adroit. He had to abruptly cancel a vote last month on a bill he drafted largely in secret after it became clear support was lacking. He’s now struggling to nail down votes to pass the latest version next week.
The president has shown some patience with McConnell’s predicament, telling reporters on Air Force One en route to France that “the only thing more difficult than peace between Israel and the Palestinians is health care.” He then repeated his confidence in a successful outcome.
But he has delivered no major speech in six months on health care either before Congress or outside Washington, addressing it only in a few tweets and a couple of asides at rallies in Iowa and elsewhere.
Pressed on what the president is doing to secure the votes for the Senate bill, White House aide Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration has provided “technical assistance throughout the process.”
In comparison, Obama aggressively used the bully pulpit of the presidency to secure passage of his Affordable Care Act, with at least five town halls in Wisconsin, Ohio, Colorado and Virginia, prime-time speeches to Congress, health care summits at the White House and elsewhere, and personal lobbying of lawmakers.
GOP lawmakers insist that Trump has been helpful, though sometimes they’ve struggled to depict exactly how. But his distance from the process could help him to avoid blame if failure is the outcome.
And now, Trump’s words signal that if Congress fails, lawmakers can expect his wrath and that of his followers — a relative minority of the population but an important slice of the GOP base that has the ability to punish Republicans who cross the president. In last year’s elections, the two major Republican Senate candidates who lost their races, then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada, did so after withdrawing their support from Trump. Winning Republicans stuck with him.
For many GOP lawmakers, the greatest fear is not a Democratic opponent but a primary challenge from the right. Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who was one of Trump’s most outspoken critics throughout last year’s campaign, has grown much quieter about the president as he faces re-election next year and a primary opponent who has embraced Trump and taunted Flake for his stances.
Now Flake is looking like a likely “yes” vote on the health care bill. He said Thursday he was still considering it, but he applauded inclusion of an amendment by conservative Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas that would allow insurers to sell skimpy, low-cost health care.
“I like the consumer freedom amendment in it, you’ve got to get relief to Arizonans that just don’t have insurance,” Flake said.
Most Republicans say that even though the GOP’s health care bills have polled poorly, and they will be forced to defend yanking insurance coverage from millions, a worse result would be failing to repeal. That would undermine the GOP’s ability to present itself as a governing party, while breaking seven years of promises.
The Republican in the White House might be able to dodge the finger-pointing that would surely follow. But he might be the only one.
“I think the whole party is going to be responsible so everyone with that label is probably going to have to bear responsibility no matter what they go home and claim,” said conservative former Sen. Jim DeMint.