Trump tries to close health care deal, but GOP skeptics grow

WASHINGTON (AP) — Showdown day at hand, Republicans remained short of votes Thursday for their showcase health care overhaul, hoping for President Donald Trump to close the deal with balky conservatives at a White House meeting.

Frenzied last-minute wheeling and dealing was underway at the Capitol, too, but if anything the number of dissidents seemed to be growing. Signaling that more work was needed, GOP leaders postponed a planned morning meeting of rank-and-file lawmakers, and House Speaker Paul Ryan delayed a scheduled news briefing.

Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state became the latest to declare her opposition. Concessions being offered to the conservatives — they want to limit requirements that health plans offer benefits including maternity and substance abuse care — appeared to be scaring off moderate Republicans.

The House Freedom Caucus, whose conservative members comprise the bulk of GOP opponents, met at midday with Trump. A Trump aide tweeted a picture of caucus members giving the president a standing ovation at the start of the session.

But going in, the signals were mixed.

The head of the group, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., warned it would be a “Herculean task” to resolve their differences quickly. Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., said, “Any package of insurance regs that the president offers us that bends the cost curve down, I’m a yes. It’s that simple.”

The stakes could hardly be higher for a party that gained monopoly control of Washington’s power centers in part on promises to get rid of President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement and replace it with something better. Now Republicans are staring at the possibility of failure at the moment of truth, an outcome that would be a crushing political defeat for Trump and Hill GOP leaders and would throw prospects for other legislative achievements into great uncertainty.

The Republican legislation would halt Obama’s tax penalties against people who don’t buy coverage and cut the federal-state Medicaid program for low earners, which the Obama statute had expanded. It would provide tax credits to help people pay medical bills, though generally skimpier than Obama’s statute provides. It also would allow insurers to charge older Americans more and repeal tax boosts the law imposed on high-income people and health industry companies.

The measure would also block federal payments to Planned Parenthood for a year, another stumbling block for GOP moderates.

In a danger sign for Republicans, a Quinnipiac University poll found that people disapprove of the GOP legislation by 56 percent to 17 percent, with 26 percent undecided. Trump’s handling of health care was viewed unfavorably by 6 in 10.

The survey was conducted March 16 to 21 with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

GOP leaders had targeted Thursday for the climactic vote, in part because it marks the seventh anniversary of Obama’s signing the measure into law. With the House in recess awaiting the outcome of the White House meeting, C-SPAN aired video of that signing ceremony.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., couldn’t resist a dig.

“You may be a great negotiator,” she said of Trump. “Rookie’s error for bringing this up on a day when clearly you’re not ready.”

In a count by The Associated Press, at least 30 Republicans said they opposed the bill, enough to narrowly defeat the measure. But the number was in constant flux amid the eleventh-hour lobbying.

Including vacancies and expected absentees, the bill would be defeated if 23 Republicans join all Democrats in voting “no.”

Obama declared in a statement that “America is stronger” because of the current law and Democrats must make sure “any changes will make our health care system better, not worse for hardworking Americans.” Trump tweeted to supporters, “Go with our plan! Call your Rep & let them know.”

Tension has been building in advance of the critical vote, and a late-night meeting of moderate-leaning members in Speaker Ryan’s office Wednesday broke up without resolution.

A key moderate who had been in the meeting, Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, issued a statement saying he would be voting “no” on the health bill. “I believe this bill, in its current form, will lead to the loss of coverage and make insurance unaffordable for too many Americans,” said Dent, a leader of the Tuesday Group of moderate-leaning Republicans.

Congressional leaders have increasingly put the onus on the president to close the deal, seemingly seeking to ensure that he takes ownership of the legislation — and with it, ownership of defeat if that is the outcome.

Including vacancies and expected absentees, the bill would be defeated if 23 Republicans join all Democrats in voting “no.”

Moderates were given pause by projections of 24 million Americans losing coverage in a decade and higher out-of-pocket costs for many low-income and older people, as predicted by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

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Associated Press reporters Alan Fram, Kevin Freking, Ken Thomas and Matt Daly contributed to this report.

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