“As long as that’s there, we do not have a repeal of the Affordable Care Act,” Yoho told me at the Capitol on Wednesday. He told Trump that if GOP leaders repealed the essential health benefits provision as part of their bill, it would be “really close” to getting his vote.
The president smiled, Yoho recalled. “We’ll see what we can do,” Trump told the congressman.
When he returned to the Capitol, Yoho was still a no.
So were the bulk of the roughly two dozen members of the Freedom Caucus who left a separate White House meeting with Vice President Mike Pence empty-handed and defiant. They were unmoved both by Trump’s warning of political fallout on Tuesday and by the vice president’s more policy-focused plea on Wednesday.
Pence, along with several senior Trump aides at the meeting, rejected the conservatives’ push either to “start over” on repealing Obamacare or a least to add language stripping out the law’s essential health benefits. “They steeled our resolve by their unwillingness to lower premiums on hard-pressed American families,” Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama told reporters afterward. “If they want to bring it up for a vote, we’ll vote it down.”
Yet by the late afternoon, it appeared the conservatives’ message had gotten through to Trump, who called members of the Freedom Caucus and told them he was now on board with adding a provision targeting the essential health benefits. Negotiations restarted by phone, with the Freedom Caucus holed up in their makeshift war room in one of the House office buildings. Popping out of the ralks shortly after 6 p.m., Representative Mark Meadows struck a notably more optimistic note. “I can tell you we’re making great progress,” Meadows, the Freedom Caucus chairman, told reporters. “We’re not there yet, but I’m hopeful.”
Just how many votes there were for the leadership’s bill was a source of debate throughout the Capitol on Wednesday. Brooks and other conservatives declared early in the afternoon there were plenty more than the 21 or 22 Republican defections they needed to defeat the measure and, they hoped, force the leadership back to the bargaining table. “Right now, you’re seeing a gain in the no votes and a subtraction from the yes votes as more and more Republican congressmen communicate with their constituents back home,” Brooks said.
Allies of the speaker claimed the opposite. They said that over the course of a flurry of meetings on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, they were getting closer and closer to a majority of the House. Depending on absences on Thursday, Ryan will need either 215 or 216 Republicans to back the bill, given the unified Democratic opposition. “We’re pretty close,” said Representative Richard Hudson of North Carolina, a member of the leadership’s whip team. “We’re seeing a lot of folks who are getting comfortable enough to say yes or getting close.”