House conservatives threaten GOP health care bill

PHOTO: Senator Rand Paul and other members of the House Freedom Caucus hold a news conference on Capitol Hill, March 7, 2017. hold a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., March 7, 2017. PlayEric Thayer/Reuters
WATCH Negotiations for health care bill down to the wire

Members of the House Freedom Caucus, after years of frustrating GOP leaders' plans with a Democrat in the White House, are prepared to do the same under President Donald Trump.

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Meeting twice on Wednesday after a trip to the White House, some conservatives declared they remained opposed to the GOP health care plan heading to the House floor on Thursday, threatening to hand Trump a stinging defeat on his first major legislative push.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who joined the afternoon huddle over pizza and Coca-Cola, called on leadership to delay the vote.

"They don't have the votes," he said as he left the meeting.

At least 25 members of the caucus, which doesn't publicize its membership, are prepared to vote against the American Health Care Act, according to a spokeswoman.

Republicans can only afford to lose 21 Republicans and still pass the bill. In addition to members of the Freedom Caucus, a number of moderates have announced opposition to the proposal.

The White House has made a number of tweaks to the original legislation in an effort to corral votes, including changes to Medicaid funding, an optional work requirement for Medicaid and instructions for the Senate to construct a $75 billion fund that would provide additional tax credits to help people buy insurance.

But the moves aren't enough for some conservatives, who are pushing for additional repeal items, such as the elimination of essential health benefits, they believe would help lower premiums.

"We think there are ways to improve it that would get enough votes, but so far we don't have any language," said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich.

The White House and Republican leaders are wary of violating Senate budgetary procedures, which could hold up the legislation in the upper chamber after a vote in the House.

On Tuesday, President Trump traveled to Capitol Hill to sell Republicans on the deal in person, telling the conference they'd be "fools" to oppose the legislation and that doing so could cost Republicans their House majority in 2018.

But some conservatives dismissed the warning from Trump, who is known to keep track of his detractors and opponents.

"The only people I answer to are the people back in my district," said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., who says he plans to vote against the bill.

Trump -- dubbed "The Closer" by House Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., at the White House today -- has successfully pushed some Republicans to support the bill.

Reps. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, both came out for the bill after meeting with the president at the White House today, according to a House GOP leadership aide. Others, such as Reps. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, and Lou Barletta, R-Pa., have also backed the bill after individual meetings with Trump in the Oval Office.

"I knew if I held out long enough ... they'd send in the big guy to close the deal," Barletta told ABC News' Mary Bruce in an interview today.

But others haven't been as easily persuaded, including Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., a member of the House Freedom Caucus who recently traveled on Air Force One with Trump.

"We still haven’t seen the movement we want to make the premiums affordable for everyone," he said today. "We’re still negotiating."

Republican leaders are still planning to bring the bill to the floor Thursday, according to House GOP leadership aides.

"I don't think they'll pull the bill. I think we have a vote tomorrow, and it will either be voted up or down," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the Freedom Caucus chair following the afternoon session.

Meadows, who stepped out of the caucus's second meeting Wednesday evening to take a call from Trump, argued that the group is focused on keeping Trump's campaign promises.

"He's got a board in the White House that talks about every single one of his campaign promises, and he's going down and checking those off," he said. "And it's incumbent upon us to work in a real good faith manner to make sure he gets this one checked off."

As of late Wednesday night, a spokesperson tweeted that the "Freedom Caucus continues to have serious concerns with current AHCA text," while noting that the process was ongoing.

Earlier in the day, as Meadows spoke to reporters, he was interrupted by McHenry and Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who joked with him about announcing his support for the bill.

"We're still negotiating, we're all trying to get to 'Yes,'" said Meadows.