Rand Paul and Susan Collins are on opposite ends of the Republican Party when it comes to health care, yet somehow the two senators both left this week’s Obamacare repeal meetings with President Donald Trump thinking he’s on their side.
Paul wants to gut as much of Obamacare as possible and recalled after his one-on-one meeting that the president “realizes that moderates have gotten everything so far” on the healthcare talks. The centrist Collins, on the other hand, left a larger Tuesday gathering with the president sure that he still wants to make the bill’s healthcare offerings more robust, explaining that “he did leave me with that impression.”
It’s not possible for both senators to get what they want, but somehow Trump convinced everyone in the Senate on Wednesday that he’s siding with them. In the 70-minute meeting with the vast majority of the Senate’s GOP caucus after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pulled the party’s repeal bill, Trump only spoke for about 10 minutes and when he talked he "seemed to agree with everyone there," one person familiar with the discussions said.
“He understands the need to bring prices down, which I think is where Rand is at,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). “With Susan, he is showing the compassionate side for the working poor.”
After Trump’s meetings with Paul and the rest of the caucus, senators seemed more optimistic than ever about getting a deal on Obamacare. It was a remarkable result after Trump thrashed the House-passed bill earlier this month and seemed to throw in with the chamber’s moderates when he said he wanted a more “generous” bill.
Trump now faces the challenge of delivering on his recent conciliatory statements and helping GOP leadership find a way to bridge the wide gaps among senators that has put the GOP’s Obamacare repeal bill is on life support.
Trump has been agitating to be involved intimately in the Republicans’ whipping operation, but seems to have accepted his current role in motivating his party to come together, as was the purpose of an unusual pilgrimage to the White House by dozens of GOP senators. He did deliver an off-note remark at the top of the meeting that it could be “OK” if the GOP’s repeal effort failed, but Republicans are not doubting his desire to get a successful result.
“Maybe he’s making the statements in the way that he is to condition [people] in the event it doesn’t happen,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who speaks regularly to Trump and his team. “I don’t think he would have convened folks unless he thought it was pretty important.”
Attendees said that Trump seemed intensely focused on getting a bill passed and is acutely aware that action on healthcare will lead to future momentum for tax reform and infrastructure investment. He did, however, leave left some senators with the impression that he didn’t fully understand the specifics of disagreement among Republicans. He told the senators that he wanted a deal and he understood all their concerns but made clear the details mattered less than the conclusion: A win for him and his party.
“He runs a good meeting. But he doesn’t know anything,” said one source briefed on the encounter. “It was like a CEO with his subordinates.”
Heading into the gathering, senators didn’t know if the encounters with Trump would be acrimonious or if the president would veer off on tangents like he often does. But the meeting was substantively about health care, one person familiar with the meeting said, and Trump didn’t talk about other things.
"He wasn’t telling people that he was going to put solar panels on the border wall," one person familiar with the meeting said. "It was actually a really good, a really good meeting."
Trump also was repeatedly confronted by angry senators over a White House-sanctioned outside group that planned to attack Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) for opposing the current healthcare bill. The president signaled that he understood that the Heller ad was not good for their relationships.
"He said: ‘I get it, I get it,’" said another person familiar with the meeting.
Even though Trump was exceedingly conciliatory, Senate Republicans’ brutal internecine fighting was still on full display for the president to view. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and other more centrist senators reminded Trump of his comments two weeks ago to a smaller group of GOP senators that the House’s healthcare bill was not generous enough and needed more money. Conservative Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) pushed a different approach, with Toomey emphasizing his support for the current bill’s Medicaid spending restrictions that Portman opposes.
Though exchanges like those demonstrated how far apart Republicans remain are on policy, on Wednesday Republicans said spending time with Trump had seemed to revive a sense of optimism into a deflated Senate GOP caucus.
“I’m more hopeful now,’” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.).
One senator said more was learned at the meeting about where the party agrees and disagrees with Trump than from the party’s regular Senate lunches, which have followed familiar patterns and talking points for weeks now.
“I wish we had to come to this meeting with ‘agree’ cards,” the senator said, referring to signs often brought to town halls. “If we’d done that, we’d identify what our differences are.”
If Trump’s goal was to soothe the party’s differences, however, the president may have accidentally accentuated some of them with his unusually placid demeanor. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who is pressing urgently for more generous Medicaid benefits and funding to fight opioid addiction, said on CNN that “the president was right there with, I think, my line of thinking.”
“The bill needs to be more of a repeal bill. And I think the president’s open to that,” Paul said, arguing the opposite case. “He’s asking conservatives: ‘What can we do to make the bill more conservative and a repeal bill?’”
In addition to Trump’s phone calls and meetings with senators, the White House is more keenly engaged on the bill than ever. A White House official said they planned to be actively suggesting deals to bring members on board, and that Vice President Mike Pence and legislative affairs head Marc Short would continue working the Hill to strike a deal.
The official added that the White House’s under-the-radar strategy included deploying Seema Verma, who oversees Medicaid, to meet with senators. The official said senators liked Verma because she speaks fluently about policy, something that others in the White House, including the president, struggle to do.
"You really only have two people who really know health care," the official said. "You have Seema, and then you have Andrew Bremberg,” an assistant to the president.
While Trump was able to help bridge the gap between moderates and conservatives in the House, Republicans still seem to be guiding him to hold back as McConnell tries to strike consensus. Until Republicans have a final bill that they have to force members to support, Republicans hope Trump largely stays put and keeps playing the role of GOP cheerleader.
“He’s willing to do anything,” Corker said. “The best thing he can do is do just let Mitch continue.”
Negassi Tesfamichael contributed to this report.