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Senate Health Care Bill Gets Lukewarm White House Reaction

Tepid response follows cheerleading from Mike Pence

President Donald Trump prepares to welcome President Klaus Iohannis of Romania to the White House for a “working visit” on Friday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump prepares to welcome President Klaus Iohannis of Romania to the White House for a “working visit” on Friday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump and his top aides responded to the health care overhaul bill crafted by Senate Republican leaders with striking silence, even after Vice President Mike Pence said a final vote must happen in the next few weeks.

The White House did not issue any paper statement about the bill, either under Trump’s name or that of any senior official. And when Principal Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders briefed reporters a few hours after the bill was made public, she declined to discuss any of its contents.

In fact, she said there are no plans — for now, at least — for the president to comment on any provision in the Senate bill.

She did say Trump is “pleased to see the process moving forward” — and the “process” is the only thing she would discuss as reporters tried again and again to glean clarity on the president’s views of the legislation.

Sanders described the president as mostly focused on “the final product,” which, should the Senate pass an amended version of the bill unveiled Thursday, would be the product of a House-Senate conference committee’s work to hammer out differences in their bills.

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“We’re looking for the best bill possible, and we’re going to continue being part of technical assistance, providing that with both House and Senate members,” she said.

The president intends to keep talking to House members and senators about what a final bill might look like, but Sanders did not state if Trump intends to get deeply involved in the Senate Republican leaders’ attempts to get the 50 needed GOP votes to pass their bill.

That floor vote could happen as soon as late next week if Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can assuage “concerns” expressed Thursday by a handful of Senate conservatives.

“The current bill does not repeal Obamacare. It does not keep our promises to the American people,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said in a statement. “I will oppose it coming to the floor in its current form, but I remain open to negotiations.”

He later joined fellow Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, in releasing a statement of opposition, saying they were “not ready to vote for this bill.”

The White House’s tepid response could be an attempt to avoid flipping any “yay” votes to “nay,” or saying anything that would prevent any GOP senator from eventually supporting the bill.

Senate leaders would like to put their measure on the floor next week, setting up a conference committee to work out a final bill. Staff would likely work much of the July Fourth recess week, allowing lawmakers to take up more contentious matters in a race to hold votes on a compromise version before the August-long recess starts July 31.

Sanders sidestepped a question about whether the president will insist on a vote before the Senate gavels out next week for a recess. They are scheduled to return July 10.

But at least one member of Trump’s circle of top advisers — his vice president — is pushing for votes as soon as possible.

Pence promised earlier Thursday that congressional Republicans will, before they leave for their August break, pass a final version of a bill that would repeal and replace the 2010 health care law.

“This is the moment,” Pence said during a morning speech at a builders and contractors conference in Washington. “Now is the time.”

He even urged the conference attendees to contact their members and press them to demand leadership hold votes before the August break.

But during an off-camera “gaggle” at the White House podium on Thursday, Sanders expressed no such sense of urgency.

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She painted the president only as interested in helping lawmakers put a “finalized bill on his desk so that we can finally repeal and replace Obamacare before it completely collapses.”

Asked how involved Trump — who campaigned as a deal-maker who would break Washington’s years-long era of bipartisan gridlock — will be in the Senate’s process, Sanders suggested the chief executive will take a more hands-off approach than he did when when the House was working on its version.

“He’s been involved by having members of his administration” talking to senators and their aides, she said. “I think it would be hard to deny the fact that they are an extension of the [White House] when you have Cabinet-level secretaries and staff members” in the talks, she added.

But in a telling sign that Trump and his top aides are not thrilled with what McConnell and company produced, Sanders opted against attaching Trump to the Senate measure’s proposed cuts to Medicaid.

“I don’t believe that the president has weighed in that it’s right to cut Medicaid,” Sanders said. “I know one of the big parts of discussion is giving states flexibility.

“And, again, the president hasn’t weighed in on any specific measure that’s in this bill,” Trump’s No. 2 spokesperson said. “And as he said earlier today, this is a negotiation between the House and the Senate, and we’re going to play a part in that. … I do know that he wants to protect [Medicaid] as much as he can.”

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