After a bitter rivalry during the 2016 presidential campaign, Sen. Rand Paul and President Donald Trump just can’t quit each other. And they are teaming up to confound everyone in Washington on the GOP’s attempts to repeal Obamacare.
After Paul dubbed candidate Trump an “orange-faced windbag” and Trump questioned whether candidate Paul had a “properly functioning brain,” the two have begun to build a strong relationship. Trump has expended major energy courting Paul and they’ve developed what Paul calls a “good rapport.” They’ve played golf and chat regularly on the phone.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has long since given up on his Kentucky colleague. White House officials also don’t think Paul can be convinced to vote for the party’s Obamacare repeal.
Yet Trump wants Paul to be part of the party’s negotiations on health care. The day before McConnell pulled the Senate’s repeal bill last week, Trump invited Paul to a personal meeting at the White House on the issue. The rest of the Senate GOP had their face time with Trump as a group.
With all that attention from the president, Paul has refused to rule out voting for an Obamacare repeal bill — even though every whip count on and off the Hill has him as a hard “no.”
Trump seems to view getting Paul’s vote as a challenge: When the senator initially came out against the House’s plan in March, Trump immediately targeted him as someone who will “come along.” And that was before the Senate even began considering the matter.
“He is very persuasive,” Paul said of Trump.
The persuasiveness goes both ways. Trump listens to Paul, who has offered a variety of political, procedural and policy solutions to the GOP’s health care quagmire over the past six months.
Paul and Trump both seem to change their mind on a whim when it comes to Obamacare, and lately they seem more intent on tearing the law down than building a new one, undercutting McConnell’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act simultaneously.
Paul Teller, who works for Trump’s legislative affairs office, has recently indicated to conservative groups that Trump would sign a repeal-only bill, a major departure from the official White House line backing the ongoing repeal-and-replace effort, according to two sources familiar with the talks. But it lines up with Paul’s recent call to repeal Obamacare and deal with a replacement later.
Paul also has Trump’s ear. And it’s driving Senate Republicans crazy.
“It’s very hard to come up with a consensus Senate Republican health care bill when Sen. Paul’s positions seem to change almost daily,” said a Republican aide familiar with internal deliberations.
Trump administration aides do not think it is worth Trump’s time to call Paul, and McConnell has made clear to the White House that Paul is a "lost cause," according to a person familiar with the conversations. Aides also have told Trump that Paul is not going to join forces with him. Trump has sometimes questioned them, citing his relationship with Paul.
The president has spent far less time personally courting Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Dean Heller of Nevada, perhaps the two hardest "no" votes other than Paul. A Trump-linked group even threatened to attack Heller for his opposition to the Senate bill. Trump traveled to Kentucky for events earlier this year, but has only gently ribbed Paul for his stubbornness.
“The president and Rand Paul have a great relationship. They have both been very public in their supporting of gutting Obamacare, repealing Obamacare,” said Brian Darling, a former counsel and spokesman for Paul who is still close to the senator. Trump “would be happy if the bill could pass and move a little more to Rand Paul’s views.”
And the two men’s burgeoning friendship has left an unmistakable imprint on the GOP’s halting efforts to gut President Barack Obama’s signature achievement — and not always for the better, according to fellow Republicans.
In December, House and Senate GOP leaders were fully prepared to approve a 2015 repeal bill as soon as the new Congress was sworn in so that Trump could sign it soon after being inaugurated. The replacement would come later, they figured, once Democrats felt the pressure to cooperate after Obamacare was swept away.
Paul swiftly rejected that approach and caught Trump’s eye while railing against the GOP on television for not having a replacement. The president-elect called him up and endorsed Paul’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare simultaneously. GOP leaders were shocked, and went back to the drawing board.
Paul then voted against a budget resolution that would set up repeal of the law via the party-line reconciliation maneuver. Every other Senate Republican supported it.
“He’s trying to blow it up and has been since January,” said a second Republican source familiar with the party’s internal deliberations.
As the House overhaul flagged in March, Paul and House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), another Trump ally, floated repealing the law and then figuring out a new system later. But the bill passed and the idea was dropped as Trump pressed for Senate action. But now that the bill is flagging in the chamber, both Trump and Paul are searching for an exit strategy.
“Let’s repeal some of the really bad crap in Obamacare that Democrats will never repeal,” Paul said last week. “Let’s do our repeal that we can do in a partisan way, and let’s put [replacement] in the” committees.
A day later, Trump caught right up to him.
“If Republican Senators are unable to pass what they are working on now, they should immediately REPEAL, and then REPLACE at a later date!” Trump tweeted. Paul retweeted Trump and said he’s spoken to the president and McConnell about it.
Hours later McConnell rejected the idea, but over the weekend White House legislative affairs director Marc Short noted that 50 of the GOP senators had voted for a repeal-only bill in the past two years. It’s the same messaging that Paul has been using — more evidence that the billionaire mogul-turned-president and the eye doctor from Kentucky-turned-senator are rubbing off on each other.
“Sen. Paul considers President Trump a friend and is always open to providing constructive feedback,” said Sergio Gor, a spokesman for Paul.
But the late-game shift from Paul and Trump has exasperated staffers working on the bill, Republicans said, and has given conservative GOP senators like Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Mike Lee of Utah a way to agree with the president and simultaneously cast doubt on the ongoing repeal bill. That will make it harder for McConnell to garner sufficient support, especially after Paul has convinced Trump that there might be another way out, even if it was the original plan that McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan were pressing for seven months ago.
“This is not to be derogatory, but it’s just true: He doesn’t like to vote yes," said one person familiar with McConnell’s thinking of Paul.
Paul’s colleagues said they understand where he is coming from, even if he hasn’t made things any easier for his party.
“Rand really believes the things he stands for. He’s very principled about it,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Asked whether Paul has been constructive despite his multitude of positions, he replied: “Absolutely.”