By LINDSEY MCPHERSON, JOHN T. BENNETT AND REMA RAHMAN, CQ ROLL CALL
President Donald Trump came to the Capitol Tuesday morning to make a closing pitch to House Republicans preparing to vote on health care legislation that will define the beginning of his presidency. And he did it with the confidence, jest and bravado that only he can deliver.
Trump did not take questions after his speech but he still had plenty of interaction with the GOP conference. Members said he called out those that he’s met with and asked them to stand up, positively highlight those he had helped convince to support the bill and semi-joke with House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows that he, too, would get to a “yes.”
The president also talked about the policy and political ramifications for not passing the health care bill, according to several members present. On the policy side, he said the bill’s defeat would derail other portions of the GOP’s agenda, like a tax code overhaul and an infrastructure package. And regarding politics, Trump said he’s heard that there may be primary challenges to members who vote against the bill but he was careful to note he was not making any threats himself.
“The president was really clear, he laid it on the lines for everybody,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan said after the meeting. “We made a promise. Now is our time to keep that promise, and we keep our promise and the people will reward us. If we don’t keep our promise, it will be very hard to manage this.”
Ryan also reiterated his belief that members have a binary choice to either “stick with the Obamacare status quo” or to replace it “with clearly a much, much better law, something that makes good on our principles and our promises and gets this country on the right track.”
While several members emerged from the meeting saying they believe the president’s presence and words would have impact on those who were hesitant to vote for the bill, there was little evidence of that.
One Republican who was undecided going in and did seem partially swayed by Trump was Texas Rep. Roger Williams.
“I’ve always wanted to be somebody that votes for this. I want to support him. I want to succeed. And I think today by him coming and showing the attention to Congress and sending his message, it did a lot for a lot of people to head in that direction,” he said.
While Williams noted he does not have to make a final decision until Thursday, he indicated he’s likely to support the bill. “I’m positive about it and I think my district is going to like what they hear,” he said.
Other Republicans who had already committed to supporting the bill prior to the president’s visit suggested Trump’s message would help close the deal.
“Virtuoso performance,” Alabama Rep. Bradley Byrne said as he walked out of the meeting. “He went off script, which was perfect. He called people’s names out in a positive way. If there was anybody wavering in there, he sold them big time. I think we’ll have more than 216 votes.”
One person, however, who was not swayed was Meadows. Trump called the North Carolina Republican out directly at least twice, according to members present.
“He was talking about people who had switched from ‘no’ to ‘yes,’ and he was thanking them individually, having them stand up,” North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson said. “And then he said, ‘Mark Meadows, where are you? Stand up.’ He said, ‘I know Mark’s going to be there. He’s promised me he’s not going to hurt me.’ And then later he was talking about getting votes in the Senate for the third phase and he said, ‘And Mark Meadows I’m going to be coming after you. No, I’m just kidding. He’s going to vote yes, I’m not going to need to.’”
Hudson said Trump’s comments to Meadows seemed to be in jest but Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., a Trump ally, interpreted a more serious message.
“He reminded Mark that he was supporting Trump even before Trump was a candidate, and that he was counting on Mark Meadows and his group,” Collins said. “There certainly [was] no commitment coming back. But he reminded everyone in the room: This is what we campaign on [and] it’s a binary choice at this point.”
Meadows declined to repeat what Trump said to him but noted that he didn’t take it as an affront.
“We smiled, we connected on a couple of occasions,” the North Carolina Republican said. “I certainly still think the president is the best guy to bring this home and close this deal out. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that, but if everyone is entrenched at this particular point, it’s going to be a very difficult 48 hours.”
Meadows told reporters one major chasm between the Trump administration and House Republican leaders is the White House’s willingness to continue making changes ahead of final floor votes in the chamber, slated for later this week. Leadership, he said, is opposed to making additional changes.
“There’s no meeting set up with the Freedom Caucus but he is aware of a vote count issue,” Meadows said of Trump. The Freedom Caucus chairman contends that there are still enough of his members opposed to the bill to sink it.
North Carolina Republican Walter Jones, who said he is “absolutely” going to vote against the bill, noted that Trump is open to changes in the future. “And that’s what gives us a lot of heartburn,” he said.
Trump and House leaders appear to be trying to cobble together the needed 216 Republican votes by picking off small groups of larger conservative factions, like the Freedom Caucus and much-larger Republican Study Committee.
“What would get me to ‘yes’ is continued assurances that the pro-life components will remain throughout the process,” said Freedom Caucus and RSC member Trent Franks, R-Ariz, “and to finish repealing” other parts of the 2010 health law that he did not specify. Franks participated in a White House meeting Monday with the Pro-Life Caucus.
Trump “expressed openness” to further altering the bill before the House votes, Franks said. “I think there are still some discussions taking place.”
Trump is meeting with about a dozen members of the moderate Tuesday Group at the White House later Tuesday.
New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur, one of the Tuesday Group’s co-chairs, said he will attend but that he’d already come to a “yes” a few days ago after learning some of the changes he was pushing for would be incorporated. He said he believes a majority of the Tuesday Group will support the bill.
While a few moderates, like New York Republican John Katko remain firmly opposed to the bill, all eyes are on the Freedom Caucus.
“If the Freedom Caucus kills this bill, which they could, then they will have voted to continue Obamacare,” Collins said. “As the president pointed out, in 2018 [that] means we would probably lose the House and the Senate. If this goes down, we also won’t get the tax reform. This is do or die on Thursday.”
Several Republican members told reporters that the president did not threaten to recruit candidates to run against any members who vote “no” on the health bill. Rather, they described Trump as matter-of-factly stating that helping kill legislation they all ran on would, by definition, put anyone at risk in the 2018 primaries.
“The way he said it was just that this is an important vote and if you don’t pass this bill it could create some political problems,” Jones said.
But buttressing the conservatives are two influential organizations, Heritage Action for America, and the Club for Growth, both of which are urging members to vote “no” on the legislation. Keeping those organizations happy is one way to fend off primary opponents from the right.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the president did not cast members’ decision as vote for the bill as-is or else. “No, no. Not at all. This is the guy who wrote ‘The Art of the Deal’,” Issa said, referring to the former real estate tycoon’s 1987 book on business practices.
Issa and MacArthur are among the Republicans targeted by a $500,000 Club for Growth ad buy urging them to vote against the measure.
“He made it very clear that he’s not going to go out and campaign against people that don’t vote for this but he thinks there will be repercussions by people within the party, thinks people will be primaried if they vote against it,” Byrne said. “I happen to agree with that assessment.”