Senate Republican leaders scramble to get Trump on board with health care compromise

PHOTO: Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., ranking member, talk during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing at the Capitol, Oct. 17, 2017. PlayTom Williams/CQ Roll Call
WATCH Trump reverses position on health care subsidies

President Donald Trump says he does not support a bipartisan agreement to stabilize insurance markets in its current form, leaving members of Congress questioning how exactly he wants to change the bill before he endorses it.

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On Wednesday afternoon, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the president did not support the bill in its current form, reiterating a tweet from the president this morning in which he said that the deal, which would subsidize insurance plans for low-income Americans for two full years, equates to a bailout for insurance companies.

“We’ve said all along that we want something that doesn't just bail out the insurance companies but actually provides relief for all Americans. This bill doesn't address that fact, so we want to make sure that that's taken care of,” Sanders said.

The bill was based on an agreement between Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the committee’s ranking member, which they introduced Tuesday at their parties’ respective weekly policy luncheons. White House legislative affairs director Marc Short attended the Republicans’ lunch.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, Alexander insisted that the president supported his and Murray’s efforts but wants to strengthen provisions to ensure that the payments, known as cost-sharing reductions or CSRs, end up helping consumers, not lining insurers’ coffers.

But at the same time, Alexander also insisted that the bill’s provisions already contain strong safeguards, so it was not clear what language Trump wants inserted into the bill to satisfy him.

“It has very strong language to [protect consumers],” Alexander told reporters. “The president, we’ve talked about that, and the president is in the process of reviewing it and we welcome his suggestions about how to improve it.”

Alexander’s remarks were the latest volley in a ping-pong game between the White House and congressional negotiators, in which Trump has at times sent mixed messages about whether or not he would support the bill.

Shortly before Alexander spoke Wednesday morning at an event with reporters about the health deal, he talked with Trump to thank him for his leadership on the deal, he said.

“I said ‘Mr. President, I’ve done exactly what you asked me to do when you called ten days ago and I’m going in to talk to this large group of reporters and tell them they’re underestimating your leadership on health care,’” Alexander said.

But at the event itself, Alexander did hedge Trump’s support, saying Trump wants to be “encouraging” of the efforts but still wants to review the language of the agreement.

A day earlier, Trump had struck a much more optimistic tone, just as Murray and Alexander were making their deal public.

“The solution will be for about a year or two years. And it'll get us over this intermediate hump,” he said, during a press conference in the Rose Garden, adding that Republicans have or "are very close to having" the votes to pass a comprehensive bill to overhaul the ACA — a long-held party goal.

Trump signed an executive order last week canceling the monthly cost-sharing reduction funds to insurers because, his administration argued, the funds were taken from the Health and Human Services budget and not specifically appropriated by Congress, making them illegal. The House Republican conference had previously sued the Obama administration making this same point as well, which the Obama administration appealed.

Republicans had justified the president’s sudden announcement, which experts warned would roil insurance markets, by saying he was simply pressuring Congress to act.

“His argument is he doesn’t have, legally, the authority to make the payments, but secondly I think he wanted to create a forcing action to get Congress to do something,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters Tuesday.

But by Wednesday morning, as Trump moved away from that position, senators seemed unsure of what his end game was.

“I think, uh, he's evolving,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters before walking away without further explanation.

Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona seemed willing to give the president time to figure out whether or not he liked the agreement, the text of which was released Wednesday.

“We're all still studying it ourselves,” he said.

On Tuesday Trump called a possible time without the subsidies as a "dangerous little period." Experts, including the Congressional Budget Office, projected that halting the government contributions would raise premiums, increase the federal deficit and destabilize the insurance marketplace.

The cost to continue the cost-sharing-reduction payments (CSRs), which are distributed in monthly installments, was estimated at $7 billion this year.

While Republicans scramble to determine whether or not they have the votes for the bill, Murray said she was open to making changes to the bill but not in order to get Trump on board.

“I’m not doing this for the president. I’m doing it for the people of the country and so is Lamar,” she said.

ABC News' Mariam Khan and Meridith McGraw contributed to this report.

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