The White House is indicating it will take a hands-off approach to the Senate’s healthcare work, entrusting Mitch McConnell and his team to come up with the 50 votes needed to replace Obamacare, according to GOP officials and lawmakers.
Whereas President Donald Trump and his emissaries negotiated legislation directly with House members, needled the House leadership on when to schedule votes and publicly surmised about the GOP’s whip counts in support of the bill, the White House seems to place more trust in McConnell.
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That’s in part because the Senate’s outsized characters and ambitious members do not enjoy being dictated to by the White House.
“They know the Senate’s got a unique role. And they want us to play it,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).
The president will have to be patient to get there. Republican sources on Monday said it could take until the August recess to figure out what can win the support 50 of the GOP’s 52 senators and pass muster with the Senate’s strict budgetary “reconciliation” rules that allow Obamacare to be scaled back by a majority vote.
Senators are likely to call for less severe Medicaid cuts and more generous tax credits for insurance markets, as well as to significantly alter the House’s attempts to give states waivers for some of Obamacare’s insurance requirements. All are politically charged matters that will take weeks to hash out.
“I don’t think [the White House will] complain when we use our time and efforts to figure out what the right policy should be,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). “There is no one more skilled than Sen. McConnell in putting together votes for difficult issues. The White House recognizes that. I would think that that gives them a level of comfort that they can be less hands-on.”
The Senate lacks the obvious warring factions that at times brought the House to a standstill over Obamacare. In the Senate, there’s no hard-line Freedom Caucus and no moderate Tuesday Group whose members can join together to block legislation in the Senate.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be as hard” as the House, said a senior administration official. “McConnell is a survivor. He’s a professional. He knows how to do it.”
A second administration official said there is a “recognition that the Senate needs some space and time and there isn’t going to be an immediate hurry.” This official said the White House was fine to give the Senate some breathing room to figure out what they can pass. McConnell can lose only two votes on repeal in his chamber, and even then would need Vice President Mike Pence to break a tie.
“We are engaged with individual members but none of this is as high-profile,” this official said. “There isn’t going to be an immediate hurry.”
Indeed, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus dialed up half the members of a 13-senator working group over the weekend. The group has met formally just once, though some rank-and-file members had been meeting for several weeks in preparation for the House to send the Senate a health care bill they anticipated would be flawed.
“We’re working with them. They’re well aware of our process,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of White House officials. Cornyn received a call from Priebus on Saturday. “Now it’s a question of building consensus within the Republican conference. All 52 Republican senators will be part of that process … We’re going to need everybody.”
Though the president and his aides may be going for a light touch now, some Republicans are girding for more engagement as the process drags on. The president’s personal engagement with House members climaxed last week as the vote drew near, as he called individual members and hosted several at the White House to press for their support.
Some Republicans believe that, eventually, senators will meet the same level of intervention.
“Oh, I think they’re going to weigh in heavily. I do,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the Finance Committee chairman. “I don’t blame them.”