The last-ditch effort by Trump had the feel of a basketball player heaving up three-pointers in the final seconds of a fourth-quarter loss while his teammates looked to the next game. On Tuesday evening, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia held the first meeting of a bipartisan group of governors-turned-senators who plan to discuss more modest fixes to the Affordable Care Act. Attendees included Democratic Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Republicans Jim Risch of Idaho and Mike Rounds of South Dakota, and Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
An aide to one of the senators described the meeting as “very preliminary,” but the participation of Republicans marked a notable shift. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, also announced on Tuesday plans to hold hearings on proposals to stabilize the individual insurance market—a move Democrats had been seeking as the basis for bipartisan discussions.
Trump, however, wasn’t ready to give up. At the outset of the private meeting with Republicans, Trump delivered a performance for the cameras—and for the assembled senators—that was at times cajoling, bizarre, and lightly threatening. The White House seated one of the bill’s most prominent holdouts, Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, directly to Trump’s right, and the president needled him for his opposition and suggested it might cost him his job next year. “He wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?” Trump said as Heller smiled gamely. Then he made an even more pointed reference to the senators who have said they would block repeal legislation from coming up for a vote. “Any senator who votes against starting debate is really telling America that you’re fine with Obamacare,” the president said. (Heller, though firmly opposed to the initial McConnell draft, is officially undecided on the current version.)
Trump spoke in more detail about the particulars of the Senate bill than he has in any previous setting. But he was reading carefully from a set of bullet points, and it sounded as if he was learning about the bill himself for the first time.
The president also has contributed more than anyone else to the sense of confusion about the Senate GOP’s strategy. In a series of tweets venting about the party’s struggle on health care, he staked out three different positions within a matter of three days: In one, he called for the Senate to simply repeal Obamacare and enact a replacement later, in another he said the GOP should “let Obamacare fail” and wait for Democrats to beg for a bipartisan replacement, and by Wednesday he was chastising Republicans for not promoting McConnell’s replacement plan aggressively enough.
The presidential whiplash continued at the White House meeting. On Tuesday, McConnell announced that because the requisite 50 Republicans could not agree on a replacement for Obamacare, the Senate would instead move to a vote simply repealing the law with a two-year delay—the same bill the GOP-controlled Congress sent to then-President Barack Obama for his veto in 2015. But that plan drew swift opposition from a trio of Republican women, who said they would not support a repeal of the ACA without a replacement ready to go. Alexander told CNN Wednesday he didn’t believe there were even 40 votes for that plan now. And later in the day, the Congressional Budget Office released an analysis finding that the bill would leave 32 million more people uninsured by 2026—nearly 50 percent more than the McConnell replacement plan that most health-care groups opposed.