Democrats are seeking to capitalize on President Donald Trump calling the Republican health care bill "mean" ahead of the Senate’s vote to repeal Obamacare, seeing it as a pivotal moment in an issue that could drive the 2018 midterm elections.
The comments from Trump, made privately to senators last week, were largely overshadowed by a mass shooting at a Congressional baseball practice and new developments in the special counsel’s investigation into Trump and his associates.
But a senior Democratic aide said the party plans to revive the "mean" comment part of floor speeches, press conferences and social media, and consultants said they craved the image of Trump celebrating in the Rose Garden with House members over a "mean" bill that hurt poor Americans.
"We will be weaving mean into the broader attack in a prominent way," the aide said.
Democrats see the health care fight as more potent than an investigation into potential collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice — and a possibly defining gaffe for commercials, according to aides. Hitting Republicans in the House for a bill that "even Trump said was mean" is particularly satisfying for Democrats, considering the president celebrated its passage in the Rose Garden.
In the Atlanta Journal Constitution poll of Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District runoff, the health law polled lower than House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Trump, Republican candidate Karen Handel, Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff.
But Democrats have struggled to come up with a united message on health care and have faced criticism because insurance companies have raised premiums and pulled out of health care exchanges in some states.
Whether Trump’s "mean" comment becomes a potent line of attack against the president — like the Democrats hope — or unifies moderate Senate Republicans to pass a health care bill that squeaks to a 50-vote margin remains unclear.
“I think it’s unifying,” added Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “At the end of the day, it’s helpful for us in getting the support that we need for the vote."
Should the Senate pass a vastly different bill, which is then adopted by the House, the scathing internal attack could be blunted.
Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said the party was already planning to make the bill more generous.
Trump’s tendency to make impolitic remarks also leaves such a gaffe as harder to exploit. One person who has spoken with Trump says he has also criticized the Senate health care process and some of their wishes.
This person said Trump had been stung by the non-stop negative news coverage of the House bill, particularly reports that more than 20 million people or more could lose insurance.
"In the list of things he’s said, I don’t think this one is high up there on the list," one administration official said.
A second administration official said the White House knows the health care push to 50 votes is a difficult one, and the White House has heard more complaints from moderates than conservatives in the Senate. Trump, this person said, was trying to show the path he saw to getting a better bill passed.
But it certainly left some Republicans in the House upset, particularly conservatives who were cajoled and cursed at by Trump, then feted by the president in a Rose Garden party, complete with a jazz band, when the bill passed.
The Heritage Foundation, for example, wrote an op-ed decrying the Trump attack as "not mean," defending the bill as good small-government policy.
"You can almost see the ads being written already," one GOP aide said.
In the Senate, where Republicans are still struggling to craft legislation that can pick up 50 GOP votes, Trump’s "mean" comments left the sense that the president wants a health care measure that is easier to defend. Several GOP senators said Trump’s comments can only help in putting together a bill that is more politically palatable and substantively improved from the measure that passed the House in May.
For instance, Trump’s comments insisting the Senate bill not be viewed as an attack on low-income Americans would seem to shore up arguments from centrist Republicans who want Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion phased out more gradually – a major contention point in the conference that has yet to be settled.
But typical for a president not steeped in policy, Trump’s private remarks calling for a more generous health care bill – or legislation that is not so “mean,” according to some accounts – left it wide open for Republicans to interpret them in myriad ways.
“I’m not sure what that means,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said of the president’s remarks. “I’m a very generous person. I help people who don’t have insurance. I want everybody to have health care. I think no physician should turn down treatment of people based on that.
Nonetheless, Republicans are at real risk of missing their Fourth of July recess deadline to vote on their Obamacare replacement, with factions of their conference still deeply divided over when to end the Medicaid expansion and how best to lower health insurance premiums.
“We keep talking about the same stuff over and over and over and over and over again,” complained Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) “At some point, we’re going to have to have votes. And right now — the reason why we keep talking about the same stuff over and over again — we don’t have the votes.”