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Trump jabs Heller: ‘He wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?’

Updated July 19, 2017 - 6:48 pm

WASHINGTON — At a lunch with Republican senators Wednesday, President Donald Trump delivered an impassioned argument in favor of repealing and replacing Obamacare, and scolded Republicans who have failed to produce the votes needed to do it.

To punctuate his point, Trump had placed right next to him Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who last month held a press conference to announce his opposition to an earlier version of the measure but who had been silent about his position on a revised measure.

“This was the one we were worried about,” Trump said, as he poked Heller. “You weren’t there. But you’re going to be. You’re going to be.”

Then he added: “Look, he wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?”

Heller is up for re-election in 2018 and has been targeted by ad campaigns and intense political pressure from both sides of the health care debate, including a Superpac formed to boost the Trump agenda.

With his hands neatly folded together, Heller grinned broadly as Trump spoke, then laughed in a show of good spirit. The back-and-forth ended as Trump touched Heller on the arm, and said, “And I think the people of your state, which I know very well, I think they’re gonna appreciate what you hopefully do.”

The White House would not say what Trump said to Heller and other Republicans who either had announced their opposition to a bill to end Obamacare, or whose support had become wobbly. Trump did refer to people he considered to be friends whose opposition surprised him.

‘An easy route’

During the lunch, Trump chided senators who had voted to repeal Obamacare during his predecessor’s presidency.

“For seven years, you had an easy route. We’ll repeal. We’ll replace. And (Obama’s) never gonna sign it,” Trump said.

Afterwards, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reminded reporters that “the large majority” of the Senate Republican conference supports legislation to end the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. He promised a vote next week – either for a repeal-only bill or a measure to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Hours later, the Congressional Budget Office released an estimate of the impact of a repeal-only bill. It said an extra 17 million people would be without health insurance in 2018, a figure that would climb to 32 million Americans by 2026.

The analysis also estimates that premiums for individual policies would rise by 25 percent next year if the number of people buying such policies plummets and concentrates sicker people in that insurance pool.

However, were the repeal-only legislation to become law, the CBO forecast also estimates that the federal deficit would be reduced by $473 billion over 10 years.

McConnell had planned for the Senate to vote this week on the Better Care Reconciliation Act, a repeal-and-replace measure. But when four of the Senate’s 52 Republicans announced they would vote no, leadership shifted to Plan B — a vote on a repeal-only bill.

Conservatives argued that a straight-up repeal bill would have to succeed because the Senate passed a repeal-only bill in 2015 – with Heller’s vote.

But on Tuesday, when three Senators pledged to prevent the planned repeal-only vote, it was back to the drawing board, and the president decided to invite the entire Republican caucus to a meal of carrot-dangling and arm-twisting.

‘Ready to act’

Trump remained flexible through the twists and turns of legislative sausage-making. When the plan was for a repeal-and-replace bill, he supported that approach. When McConnell saw repeal-only as the ticket, Trump did too. When it was clear that repeal-only would tank, Trump said he would just “let Obamacare fail.”

Wednesday, however, Trump returned with some fight in him.

“I’m ready to act,” the president said. “People are hurting. Inaction is not an option, and frankly I don’t think we should leave town unless we have a health insurance plan, unless we can give people great health care. Because we’re close, we’re very close.’’

Aides seemed hopeful during a press briefing after the lunch session. Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short talked about further accommodations the leadership was willing to make for a legislative win. Trump, he said, would sign a repeal-only bill, but the president would prefer a measure that repeals and replaces the 2010 law.

Even with Trump’s encouragement, Senate leaders face a difficult task getting moderate and conservative senators to agree on a bill.

Heller opposed the earlier Senate bill because of cuts to Medicaid. Asked how he will vote next week, Heller’s office released a statement in which he said, “Conversations are continuing and I remain committed to working on behalf of Nevadans and acting in the best interest of my state.”

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or at 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter. Bloomberg News contributed to this story.

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