Republican senators are taking aim at their own for the GOP healthcare bill’s flop – particularly the handful of senators who have resisted calls to back the legislation.
“Each senator works within their own circle of ideas, philosophy and influence, I give them that, but they shouldn’t be doing that at the expense of everybody else,” Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, said Wednesday of his colleagues. “If this continues it doesn’t augur well for tax reform or anything else we want to accomplish.”
The environment is rich for blame: moderate Republicans, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to embark on a closed process and forgo committee hearings, Democrats, a narrow Republican majority that leaves no room for maneuvering and President Donald Trump and his White House.
Few lawmakers blame Trump publicly, even as he has largely been on the sidelines of the debate after promising voters that repeal would be “easy.”
His entreaties have mostly served to complicate Republican efforts by his penchant for abruptly changing course: On Monday he suggested Republicans unable to find enough votes to repeal and replace Obamacare should just uproot the law and work on a replacement later. On Tuesday, he suggested Republicans should let the health care system fail and blame Democrats.
But by Wednesday, he endorsed the moribund plan to repeal and replace as he cajoled Senate holdouts during a lunch at the White House, issuing what appeared to be a veiled threat to one of his party’s most vulnerable members.
“He wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?” Trump said as he sat next to Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who is up for re-election in 2018 and has expressed concern with the Republican replacement plan. “I think the people of your state, which I know very well, I think they’re going to appreciate what you’re hopefully going to do.”
Late Wednesday, senators gathered to try again.
And as McConnell attempts to create a bill that can pass muster with his 52-member Republican caucus – from conservatives who want straight-up repeal to moderates who worry about the effect of repeal on the vulnerable in their states – there is little evidence that the breach can be resolved.
Some Republicans privately are stewing over what they see as insufficient involvement from Trump, who could have done more, in their view, to get the bill over the finish line already.
“It’s a demonstration of the lack of focus and leadership from President Trump,” said one major GOP donor and fundraiser who requested anonymity in order to not damage professional relationships. “Legislation like this is not going to pass unless the president effectively uses the bully pulpit and presents a positive case for passage. He did nothing other than threaten lawmakers, and that didn’t build the public support necessary to convince lawmakers to vote.”
The donor said that Trump needs to take a different, more engaged approach for other big-ticket items, like a tax code overhaul, to pass.
“Donors are frustrated across the board that none of the major promises that the president and Congress ran on have been passed, other than getting Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, which has bought the president a lot of goodwill,” the Republican said.
VIDEO:The verdict is in on the Senate health bill - June 2017
The responsibility starts and ends in the Senate, said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who said Trump was initially advised to let the Senate handle the bill and come in the end for the close.
“I wouldn’t put that on him,” Rubio said of the Senate’s inability so far reach to secure enough votes for passage. “I would put that on the fact that we have four, five, six people for different reasons are not prepared to support the proposals that are before us, and it’s disappointing. Republicans achieved a majority on this promise. … Virtually every Republican candidate in the country campaigned on it and we need to continue to work on it.”
Senators credited Trump with keeping the conversation going in what Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. described as a “very upbeat” lunch.
“People expressed the concerns they have, and I would say no question the meeting gave a boost to the effort,” Corker said. “It’s my sincere hope we get over the line.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is working on an alternative bill, said the blame lies with the legislation itself. The Senate health care bill to repeal and replace Obamacare is increasingly unpopular in most polls.
“If you can’t sell it to the hometown folks, then you’ve got to look at your product,” Graham said. “Not one person has come up to me and said ‘Lindsey, will you please pass this bill?’”
Some have grumbled that Trump has not used his presidential megaphone to promote the legislation to the public beyond bashing Obamacare. He’s made few speeches touting what Republicans say are advantages to their approach.
“He’s obviously in a position with the bully pulpit to not only put pressure on our members, but also make the sale to the American people,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.
At the White House, Trump’s legislative affairs director Marc Short rejected a “sense that he hasn’t been active,” noting that Trump had called senators last week from Paris to work on them.
Still, he acknowledged that Trump could do more, including traveling to red states to build support for the bill.
“Several senators raised the notion that the president could be extremely helpful to them in making the case, and I think he was receptive to that,” Short said. “There’s a lot of things in this bill that we can trumpet and I think you will see that happening.”
Grassroots conservatives are furious at the senators who have blocked the bill, particularly with Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Rob Portman of Ohio, who have balked at a bill that would repeal Obamacare. All three voted for the same measure in 2015 – when it was vetoed by Obama. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, voted against the measure in 2015 and said she would do so again.
“The solution is good conservative candidates in primaries for these folks,” said Ken Cuccinelli, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund. “This has been the number one issue for conservative grass roots for seven years and then some.”
FreedomWorks said it would deliver what it called “Freedom Traitors” awards, along with busts of Benedict Arnold to senators who don’t vote for repeal.
But Trump shares none of the culpability.
“The blame is squarely on the Senate right now,” said Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin, who included McConnell in her critique and said he should be able to convince senators who voted for repeal in 2015 to do the same now.