The White House and Mitch McConnell’s office tell very different stories about the failure of the health care bill

Jon Ward and Hunter Walker
Jon Ward and Hunter Walker

WASHINGTON — As the dust settled following Monday night’s collapse of the Republican effort to repeal Obamacare, a flurry of finger-pointing and competing narratives emerged with both the White House and the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell trying to minimize their own roles in the debacle.

Some White House staffers threw McConnell under the proverbial bus, suggesting that the majority leader rushed the vote and limited President Trump’s involvement. McConnell’s allies denied he sought to dictate the process or have the president take a back seat. They said both Senate leadership and the White House did all they could to pass the bill.

The GOP’s Obamacare repeal push initially fell apart in the House in late March. At the time, President Trump praised the unsuccessful efforts of House Speaker Paul Ryan to get a deal done. Ryan and the GOP went on to pass a bill out of the House a month later, and sent it to the Senate in early May.

But after negotiations in the Senate broke down Monday night, Trump didn’t try to hide his disappointment with Congress.

“For seven years, I’ve been hearing ‘repeal and replace’ from Congress, and I’ve been hearing it loud and strong. And then when we finally get a chance to repeal and replace, they don’t take advantage of it,” Trump said. “So that’s disappointing.”

Multiple sources inside the White House told Yahoo News that Trump took a lower-profile role in pushing the Senate bill than with the House version because McConnell asked to take the lead. A senior White House official who requested anonymity said McConnell’s team wanted Trump to step back and indicated they were sure they could get a health care bill passed.

“McConnell said he had this,” said the senior official.

But McConnell’s allies vehemently rejected the notion the majority leader headed the process. Don Stewart, the majority leader’s communications director, said Trump personally “actually did do quite a little bit of work” to push the legislation. Stewart also denied that McConnell asked the White House to let him run the show.

“There was never a point where we said, ‘We’ve got the votes shut up. That never happened. The president was extremely helpful,” Stewart said.

Stewart said McConnell and Trump “talked all the time” and that the president and other White House officials made “phone calls to members any time we needed.” He also disputed the senior White House official’s claim that McConnell expressed confidence the health care bill would pass. According to Stewart, McConnell “never said that we have the votes” in his conversations with the White House, since the proposed legislation was being continuously amended.

“The leader’s never said he confidently had the votes. That would be a misunderstanding if somebody, some anonymous aide, told you that,” said Stewart. “Until recently we didn’t have a product to whip votes on.”

Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff who remains close to the majority leader, went even further.

“Anybody who told you McConnell counts vote totals before they commit has never known him or been around him long enough to form an opinion,” Holmes wrote in an email. “It’s literally never happened. Ever.”

Holmes also disputed the idea that Trump was asked to step back from the process.

“The president has been engaged throughout and I’m certain the majority leader appreciates his full effort,” wrote Holmes.

McConnell created a 13-man working group to craft the health care bill. However, his aide, Stewart, said McConnell brought in all of the Republicans in Congress about “a month or so ago” when he decided that “all of our lunches with all of our members would be the working group.”

“The leader certainly, he’s the leader,” Stewart said of McConnell, adding, “But he engaged all 52 members three times a week in lunches.”

An official with the Trump campaign organization pushed back on the Senate team’s efforts to distance McConnell from the unsuccessful push.

“McConnell is in damage control mode, everyone in D.C. knows this health care failure is hung around Mitch’s neck,” the campaign official said.

Mitch McConnell speaking at a news conference on Capitol Hill, July 18, 2017. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

A second senior White House aide also blamed McConnell for rushing the process. McConnell initially said he wanted a vote on the Senate health care bill before the July 4 recess, which sped up the push for votes. The White House aide said this was “not our timeline.”

“The timeline was given to us on a chart from GOP leadership,” the aide said.

While there’s some truth to the idea that Senate leadership set the rapid timetable for the bill, Trump himself created the expectations, even before he was inaugurated. On January 10, he told the New York Times that Congress would repeal Obamacare “probably some time next week” — before his own Inauguration — and replace it “very quickly or simultaneously, very shortly thereafter.”

And Trump also sabotaged Ryan and McConnell’s plan to pass a simple repeal, set up a two-year replacement process, and move to tax reform. “It will be repeal and replace,” Trump said on January 11. “It will be essentially simultaneously. It will be various segments, you understand, but will most likely be on the same day or the same week, but probably the same day. Could be the same hour.”

A House leadership aide pointed right back at the White House, blaming the president for the failure in Congress. “If the [White House] was organized and all in, it would be much easier,” the aide said, noting the “inability of the three entities — White House, Senate and House — to all be rowing consistently in the same direction toward the same end. “

The Trump campaign official countered with an extremely blunt assessment of congressional leadership’s performance.

“Republican house and Senate leadership was trusted to do their jobs, and have subsequently proven to be utterly incompetent and ineffectual,” the campaign official side.

Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer and his deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, did not respond to an email asking if this view matches the official White House position. Since the spring, many observers and lawmakers have noted that the closed, nondeliberative process in both the House and the Senate was making it more difficult to get to a deal.

But an influential conservative intellectual said Tuesday that the problem was not just the rush to get a bill passed. “More time might have made for a more functional process. But ultimately there was a lack of substantive coherence and clarity — especially on the part of the president, of course, but also in Congress — and I’m not sure speed was behind it,” this person said.

John Feehery, a former House leadership aide, said that Republicans were foolish to make health care their first major agenda item to begin with.

“You can go fast on health care or slow on health care, but either way it was going to be a disaster. They could have moved quickly on taxes and infrastructure. No way could you move quickly on health care. It’s too complicated,” Feehery said. “Republicans are better at taxes than health care.”

A White House staffer said many in the West Wing share the view that infrastructure would have been a better area to begin with.

During the White House press briefing on Tuesday, Yahoo News asked Sanders, the principal deputy press secretary, if the administration had any regrets about moving on health care before infrastructure or another agenda item. Sanders, who said Trump was “frustrated” by the failure of the health care bill, offered a decidedly noncommittal answer.

“No, not necessarily,” she said.

The Trump campaign official suggested the president will take the health care fight to the polls if Congress is unable to pass a health care bill. With midterm elections coming up in 2018, Trump could push for members of Congress who don’t back his agenda to be voted out.

“Legislating is not the resident’s responsibility, so he’s been waiting in the Oval Office for a bill to sign into law. If Republican leadership continues to fail the American people, the president will put the legislative process into receivership and the American people are going to fire those Republicans unwilling to support the Trump agenda.

Amid the finger-pointing and threats, McConnell is vowing to hold a vote in the coming days on full repeal of Obamacare, with a replacement to come later. There was widespread uncertainty Tuesday about when McConnell might schedule a vote on straight repeal. But Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who favors repealing Obamacare and replacing it later, cast a rare note of optimism when he said it could open the door to bipartisan negotiations with Democrats, which so far have not happened.

“I suppose it is at least possible that it could become bipartisan if we had it repealed,” Lee told Yahoo News. “Perhaps the Democrats would decide they want to play a role in deciding what comes next.”

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