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Republican lawmakers blindsided by Trump on ObamaCare

Republican lawmakers were caught completely off guard by President Trump’s renewed push to repeal and replace ObamaCare and privately complain it’s a dumb political strategy heading into the 2020 election.


Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), whose panel has jurisdiction over health care, said he received no heads-up from Trump or the White House that the president would call Tuesday for the GOP to become “the party of health care.”

“I don’t think there was any heads-up on anything that he was going to say,” said Grassley, who added that he didn’t even know Trump was meeting with the GOP conference on Tuesday until Monday night.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of another key panel that handles health care, said he didn’t know about Trump’s new health care push until the president tweeted about it at 11:58 a.m. Tuesday, shortly before he walked into a Republican conference lunch to announce it in person.

If Trump had told GOP senators of his plans, they say they would have sought to convince him not to throw their party back into a war over health care — the issue Democrats believe was instrumental to their takeover of the House in last year’s midterms.

A safe 2018 Senate map that had Republican incumbents defending just a handful of seats and Democrats trying to protect senators in deep-red states helped the GOP overcome the blue wave in the House. Republicans actually gained two seats in the Senate.

But the 2020 map is seen as more challenging, and many in the GOP can’t understand why Trump would plunge them into a fight over health care just as he was surfing a wave of good news brought by the end of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

“It doesn’t seem to make sense politically,” said one Republican senator, who questioned why Trump would give Democrats a new avenue of attack.

Another Republican senator said, “We would be crazy to try to go through what we went through again,” referring to the failed 2017 effort to repeal ObamaCare, which fell one vote short in the Senate.

A third Republican senator expressed hope that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will join House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in pressing Trump to back off his aggressive push to defeat the 2010 health care law in court.

“I would think McConnell and crew would be using their influence to get the administration to stop this,” the source said.

The lawmaker said Trump is “throwing down a challenge in advance of the elections which makes it even more difficult,” describing the current politic environment as “toxic” for passing ambitious legislation. 

“If you look at past history, we don’t really know how to do it,” the senator added, referring to broad health care legislation.

McCarthy urged Trump in a phone call to drop his administration’s effort to have the law struck down in the courts, arguing the strategy makes little sense after Democrats won control of the House in November after campaigning on health care, according to reports Wednesday by Axios and The Washington Post.

Trump, nevertheless, doubled down on his position Wednesday. He defended the Justice Department’s argument for striking down the law he called a “disaster,” arguing that it had sent premiums soaring and has turned out to be “far too expensive for the people, not only for the country.”

“If the Supreme Court rules that ObamaCare is out, we’ll have a plan that is far better than ObamaCare,” the president promised at the White House on Wednesday.

Trump told Republican senators at the Tuesday meeting that he wants GOP lawmakers to come up with a health care package to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) if the courts strike down former President Obama’s signature law.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is up for reelection in a state Democrat Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, said Trump’s bold promise that Republicans will have a plan to replace ObamaCare if it’s struck down by the Supreme Court has “got the cart before the horse.”

She said, “There’s some very important, good provisions of the ACA that have helped to expand health insurance for low-income Americans” and also “provide important consumer protections to virtually all of us, and I would not want to see those abandoned.”

“For the administration to advocate for invalidating a duly enacted law is a mistake, in my view,” she added.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who is also up for reelection in a state that voted for Clinton in 2016, declined to comment on whether he agrees with the administration support for striking down protections for people with pre-existing conditions and other ACA reforms.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) warned that the issue of health care reform hasn’t worked for Republicans in the past.

“It’s historically probably not been a great issue for Republicans,” he said.

Thune did say the GOP could turn it around “if we’re providing solutions that create lower premiums and copays and deductibles for people.”

Alexander said he had not planned to grapple with the thorny problem of insurance reform this Congress and instead wanted to focus on finding ways to lower health care costs by looking at prescription drug costs, surprise billing and the 340B drug pricing program.

Grassley said he had planned to work primarily on prescription drug costs — not finding a new plan to replace ObamaCare.

McConnell has counseled colleagues that it is smarter to play offense by attacking Democrats for their most liberal proposals, such as providing Medicare for all, instead of playing defense on the GOP’s own plan, said a Republican senator familiar with McConnell’s advice on the subject.

Republican senators say the onus should be on Trump to come up with a health care plan, since it’s his idea.

“I’d like to see what the administration brings forward. The first step is to see what the president and the White House have with regard to their health care plan and be able to respond to that,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who is up for reelection next year, agreed that it would be “reasonable” for the White House to take the lead on health care reform.

“What we don’t want to do is start working in 50 different directions this Congress and not have it supported by the administration,” she said.