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The GOP Full-Court, Post-Lunch Press on Health Care

After White House lunch, an effort to turn nays into ayes

Sen. Tim Scott and other Republican senators went to the White House for lunch on Wednesday to discuss their health care efforts. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Tim Scott and other Republican senators went to the White House for lunch on Wednesday to discuss their health care efforts. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

By John T. Bennett and Joe Williams

Senate Republicans are planning a last-ditch effort to revive their legislation to overhaul the U.S. insurance system after a lunch-time meeting on Wednesday afternoon with President Donald Trump.

Vice President Mike Pence, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma and other administration officials are heading to Capitol Hill Wednesday evening to “work with” GOP senators who have “so far had some difficulty getting to yes” on a motion to proceed to a Republican-crafted health care measure,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a blazing hot White House driveway after joking about the July heat.

McConnell said, if GOP members will tee up the legislation for floor work, there is no way “I or anybody else can prevent members from having amendments … and change the bill.” He noted GOP senators have promised in four consecutive elections they would nix Barack Obama’s health law and replace it with one of their own.

The majority leader said he wants to “disabuse” anyone of any notion that the Senate will not vote on the motion to “get on the bill” next week.

“I have every expectation that we’ll be able to get on the bill,” McConnell said, though he acknowledged having trouble finding the ample number of votes.

The meeting Wednesday night will be primarily to sway skeptical GOP members, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said.

“I think it’s just the ones who have remaining, unresolved issues,” the Texas Republican said. “I would say 40 members of the conference are ready to vote on any agreed upon product.

Trump leaned on one of those GOP skeptics at Wednesday’s lunch. Seated next to Nevada’s Dean Heller, Trump suggested he must find a way to convince the Nevada Republican to support the Senate health bill. Then, he dropped the carrot and went to the stick: “He wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?”

A vote on the motion to proceed to the House-passed repeal and replace measure is still scheduled to take place early next week.

A vote on a substitute bill cannot occur until that procedural hurdle is passed, and three Republican lawmakers on Tuesday vowed to vote against that motion.

That could change, however, if the bill is adjusted to meet the concerns of one of the three, which include Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine.

Lawmakers are working behind-the-scenes to try to address some of the outstanding concerns, including those surrounding the proposed changes to the Medicaid program.

“I’m still in the position I have been in for weeks which is trying to improve the bill. We had a good discussion about some of those potential improvements today,” Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who has expressed concerns about provisions in the current proposal, told reporters. “We need more to be able to show that low-income people will have options for affordable health care.”

Portman said he is working with 10 other members, including Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, on a change to the current draft that would help to ensure there is “adequate funding to help people who are in expanded Medicaid.”

Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana is also continuing to work on his proposal with Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina that would essentially give states a bulk amount of money to help manage their insurance markets.
Graham said earlier on Wednesday that Trump supports their approach.

“I think the president likes the idea. I’ve actually talked to him about it. Get it closer to the patient, trust the states, and hold them accountable,” he told reporters, adding that he has been speaking with governors to try to win their support.

It remains to be seen how some swing-votes, like Heller, stand on the current repeal and replace proposal.

“No, but it was a good meeting,” the Nevada Republican said when asked whether the meeting with Trump changed his opinion on the bill. “It was all positive.”

Heller shrugged off Trump’s question about whether he wanted to keep being a senator. “That’s just President Trump being President Trump,” he said. 

After senators went back to Capitol Hill, White House legislative affairs director Marc Short appeared at the briefing room podium and talked up the chances for repeal-and-replace legislation.

He also addressed Trump’s cryptic remark to Heller. 

Trump wants Heller to be re-elected, Short said, adding the president was eager to have some one-on-one time with the Nevada Republican during Wednesday’s lunch.