President Donald Trump's labeling of a House-passed health care bill as "mean" is aggravating some of the conservatives he pressed to back it, even as Senate attempts to reshape the measure increasingly threaten to spill into July.
"In terms of strategery, I hope he's just trying to motivate the Senate," Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., said Wednesday, employing a mangled word used by former President George W. Bush. "Because he put all sorts of pressure on us to move the bill we passed."
Congressional sources said Trump described the House bill as mean at a closed-door White House lunch Tuesday with 15 Republican senators. It was an extraordinary slap at a bill Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., guided through the House and that Trump himself had championed and praised. At a Rose Garden ceremony minutes after the bill's 217-213 House passage on May 4, Trump called it "a great plan."
"To call a bill that he pushed 'mean' leaves us scratching our heads," Brat said.
The president's criticism also came as Senate Republican leaders' attempts to write their own health care package have been slowed by disagreements between their party's conservatives and moderates. Trump said he wants the Senate version to be "more generous," the sources said.
GOP senators said Wednesday they remained divided over pivotal questions about dismantling and replacing chunks of former President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. These included disagreements over phasing out Medicaid expansion to additional low-income people, easing some of the law's coverage requirements and reshaping subsidies the statute provides to millions of individuals buying policies.
No. 2 Senate GOP leader, John Cornyn of Texas, called his chamber's passage of legislation by Congress' July 4 recess "a good goal" but urged patience.
"I'd say give us a little more time," Cornyn said. "The end of July by the latest."
That delay would be a setback to the GOP. Party leaders would rather avoid sending lawmakers home for an August recess with hostile town hall meetings that might erode support for an unfinished health care bill, and they want to leave more time for work on tax legislation.
Facing expected unanimous Democratic opposition, Republicans will be unable to pass a Senate bill if just three of the 52 GOP senators vote "no." Alienating any of them could make approving the measure trickier for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who's been hoping for a vote before Congress' July 4 recess.
Trump's comments were described by two GOP congressional sources who received accounts of Tuesday's White House lunch. They spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal a closed-door conversation.
One source said Trump called the House bill "mean, mean, mean" and said, "We need to be more generous, more kind." Another said Trump used a vulgar phrase to describe the House bill and told the senators, "We need to be more generous."
Two other congressional GOP officials confirmed that the general descriptions of Trump's words were accurate.
The sources say the president did not specify what aspects of the bill he was characterizing.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters aboard Air Force One Tuesday evening, "We don't comment on rumors or private conversations."
In an embarrassing retreat, Ryan had to abruptly cancel a March vote on the House measure after a revolt by Republican conservatives and moderates that would have ensured its defeat.
The measure's final version reflected a compromise by conservative leader Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and centrist Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J. They agreed to language letting states drop requirements for higher premiums under Obama's health care law to protect those with pre-existing medical conditions, and requiring insurers to cover specific services like maternity care.
Asked to comment on Trump's remarks about the House measure, Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said, "Congressional Republicans, with President Trump's support, are working to repeal and replace this terrible Obamacare law that is harming Americans."
Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Kenneth Thomas and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.