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Analysis: Senate Health Care Failure Another Blow to Trump

Aides had described POTUS as ‘active’ behind the scenes to find 50 votes

President Donald Trump speaks while flanked by House Republicans in May after they passed legislation aimed at repealing and replacing the 2010 health care law. A Senate measure that Trump had lobbied for behind the scenes died Monday night due to lack of GOP support. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images file photo)
President Donald Trump speaks while flanked by House Republicans in May after they passed legislation aimed at repealing and replacing the 2010 health care law. A Senate measure that Trump had lobbied for behind the scenes died Monday night due to lack of GOP support. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images file photo)

The inability of Senate Republicans to agree on a measure to repeal and replace Barack Obama’s 2010 health care law is another blow to Donald Trump’s still-young but embattled presidency.

The president took to Twitter shortly after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pulled the measure after the third and fourth GOP senators announced their opposition — two more than he could spare. Trump’s message in a late-night tweet and then one on Tuesday morning was forward-looking.

The House appeared prepared to quickly take up the Senate leadership bill for a vote that likely would have propelled it to Trump’s desk. But Trump’s inability to help McConnell and Co. find 50 Republican votes comes as the White House is dealing with declining approval ratings, including in key swing counties that helped him upset Democrat Hillary Clinton, as well as a seemingly ever-escalating scandal involving the Russian government and some of his top campaign aides, including Donald Trump Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

[Was President at Trump Tower When Son Met Russian Lawyer?]

Trump, as he has for months despite supporting different House and Senate GOP health bills, wrote that his party “should just REPEAL failing ObamaCare now & work on a new Healthcare Plan that will start from a clean slate. Dems will join in!”

The president started Tuesday by tweeting for all to “stay tuned” on health care, returning to what long has appeared his gut instincts about how to ditch Obama’s law and replace it with a Trump-GOP plan: “As I have always said, let ObamaCare fail and then come together and do a great healthcare plan.”

The president has advised members of his party for some time that perhaps that might be the most politically advantageous path for Republicans, forcing Democrats to compromise on an overhaul plan. Some experts, however, doubt that approach would work, largely because Republicans and Democrats have such fundamentally different views about health care policy.

Since the Senate took up its health overhaul effort in May, Trump has been — publicly, at least — a less visible presence than he was during the House effort. Aides explained that Trump was using a softer touch and tone because he has realized the Senate is a different animal than the House, where there were more potential deals to cut and Republican cats to herd.

The president’s own words and tweets during the Senate’s process to fashion a bill — which often seemed to contradict those of his communications, policy and legislative affairs shops — appeared to reveal a chief executive eager to leave some space between himself and whatever McConnell and his top deputies could piece together.

If they could craft a measure capable to garner 50 votes — with Vice President Mike Pence casting the decisive 51st — Trump and his top aides made clear he would sign it. After all, the businessman-turned-president who promised voters so much “winning” they would plead with him “we can’t take it anymore, we can’t win anymore like this,” is in need of a major early-term legislative victory.

Trump’s thirst for victories over any clear ideological philosophy was on display in another Tuesday morning tweet. He wrote that Republicans have “only a very small majority” in both chambers and therefore “need more victories next year since Dems totally obstruct, no votes!” That was an apparent warning to GOP members that they could be wiped out in the 2018 midterm elections unless they find ways to start passing legislation.

Yet, Trump never seemed that thrilled with the House bill, which he reportedly called “mean,” just the victorious vote. The same appeared true of the Senate bill, as his out-of-place comment during a June 27 meeting with most GOP senators at the White House showed.

“This will be great if we get it done,” he said that day. “And if we don’t get it done, it’s just going to be something that we’re not going to like — and that’s OK. I understand that very well.”

Still, however, the president did have at least partial ownership of the Senate bill. Trump told the Christian Broadcasting Network’s Pat Robertson last week “I will be very angry” if GOP senators failed to strike a deal on the Senate measure. “Mitch has to pull it off.”

And Democrats reacted quickly to try and tie Trump to the Senate failure.

“Instead of listening to the people they represent, Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and congressional Republicans ignored their constituents and met behind closed doors to craft legislation that would have devastated working families,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said in a statement released late Monday night.

“Make no mistake,” Perez said, “this bill’s defeat is a victory for human decency and for the millions of families who rely on the Affordable Care Act.”

As Trump sought at times to distance himself from the Senate effort, some GOP members expressed their conclusion that he was having a hard time grasping the often-dense policy details of health care.

“This issue is maybe not the president’s wheelhouse,” Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., told MSNBC late last month.

White House aides say the president was busy working the phones and hosting small groups of senators at the executive mansion, trying to twist a few arms and shore up GOP lawmakers who appeared inclined to vote for the now-shelved measure.

Despite the president’s own talk of letting the 2010 health law, in his words, continue “collapsing,” White House principal deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders recently told reporters Trump and his top aides only were focused on “Plan A,” which she described as a process that would culminate with Trump eventually signing the Senate bill.

In recent weeks, she and other White House spokespeople described Trump as “fully engaged” on that effort. “That’s the focus now, and that’s the only focus.”

Just on Monday, Trump and his top spokesman were busy predicting victory and expressing confidence in McConnell — with help from Pence and others — getting the bill through the Senate.

“We feel very confident about where we are now, and we look forward to getting that bill on the president’s desk and getting it signed,” press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday. “The president will sign it as soon as it’s possible.”

He described Trump as having “been very active on the phone” with plans to “continue to meet with senators.” In between watching the U.S. Women’s Open at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club, Spicer said Trump was “very active over the weekend” working to get the necessary 50 votes.

“We’ll continue those discussions,” Spicer said, signaling Trump was intent on helping broker the final deals that would have been needed before GOP Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas announced their opposition, driving a dagger into the Senate bill on which the president had worked behind the scenes.

[Pence Uses His Medicaid Expansion Plan as Sales Pitch to Governors]

“So I think we’re going to do what we did the last time,” Spicer said Monday. “The president is going to be engaged, he’s going to get this done.”

Even the president himself seemed to take more ownership of the Senate measure on Monday.

He vowed that Republicans ultimately would replace Obama’s law with “something that is going to be outstanding” and “far, far better than [the] failing Obamacare,” of which he said “every single element of it is bad.”

“We’re going to get that done,” he promised. “And I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”

Trump has gotten a crash course in the ways of the House and Senate, often describing the path to victory in the latter as “narrow.” He struck that same tone Monday, just hours before Lee and Moran threw the Senate effort off the tracks.

“Republican senators are great people,” Trump said during a “Made In America” event. The hard part, he explained is “some states need this, some states need that.”

“But we’re getting it together,” the president promised. “And it’s going to happen.”

For now, at least, Trump’s promise appears likely to remain unfulfilled as the dark cloud of the Russia scandal and declining approval numbers hang over his presidency — and with an equally daunting legislative challenge up next: tax reform.

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