Trump Taunts Freedom Caucus on Obamacare

  • President tweets that conservatives must ‘get on the team’
  • House Republicans considering another run at Obamacare repeal

Trump Signals He's Ready to Work With Democrats

President Donald Trump said he is ready to “fight” the conservative House Freedom Caucus, citing several Republicans by name and warning it could drag down the GOP’s entire agenda, a sign of deep disarray after the embarrassing setback on its attempted Obamacare repeal.

“The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” Trump tweeted Thursday morning, raising the stakes on next year’s congressional elections as party leaders try to turn their attention to a promised tax overhaul. 

Ryan on Capitol Hill on March 28.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The president later posted that if Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows and co-founders Jim Jordan and Raul Labrador “would get on board we would have both great healthcare and massive tax cuts & reform.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan, reeling from last week’s aborted effort to pass the GOP’s health-care bill, said Thursday that he understood Trump’s frustration, since “90 percent of our conference” backed the health-care bill. “I share his frustration,” he told reporters Thursday.

Earlier, Ryan issued his own caution to Republicans that they need to unify or risk tempting the president to cut a deal with Democrats.

As Republican lawmakers discuss reviving their health bill, Ryan told CBS that he fears that “if we don’t do this, then he’ll just go work with Democrats to try and change Obamacare. And that’s not, that’s hardly a conservative thing.”

The strong words from Trump and Ryan come after several House Republican lawmakers said Wednesday that the party may attempt another vote next week on the health-care bill, even as leaders tried to tamp down expectations.

"It’s not going to the floor next week," Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the chief House GOP vote-counter, said Thursday morning. "The leader schedules the floor. But I don’t anticipate it going next week."

Ryan told reporters Thursday that “this is too big of an issue to not get right, and so I’m not going to put some kind of artificial deadline on saving the American health care system from an oncoming collapse.”

Corker Rebuke

Some Republicans appeared uncomfortable with the harsh new tone coming from their party’s top leaders.

“This idea of not working with Democrats on health care is a big mistake,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said. “I think President Trump would serve himself well and the country well if after Obamacare begins to collapse, which it is, he challenged the Democrats and Republicans to work together. That would help the country, that would be the best way to reform health care, I think it would change his numbers.”

Separately, Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee tweeted, “We have come a long way in our country when the speaker of one party urges a president NOT to work with the other party to solve a problem.”

But the recriminations continue with the GOP, as frustrated Republicans lashed out over the collapse of one of their top campaign promises.

"He is obviously frustrated as many of us are and there is only one place the finger-pointing should go and that is at the Freedom Caucus," said Representative Chris Collins of New York, an early Trump backer.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer declined to comment on whether the president was threatening a primary challenge against Freedom Caucus holdouts. "I’m going to let the tweet speak for itself," he said.

Threat to Sanford

But Mark Sanford of South Carolina, a member of the group, told the state’s Post and Courier newspaper that Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney, himself a former member of the House, delivered such a threat. 

"’The president asked me to look you square in the eyes and to say that he hoped that you voted ‘no’ on this bill so he could run against you in 2018,’" Sanford said Mulvaney told him.

Several Freedom Caucus members declined to comment on Trump’s attack, but others defended the group’s decision to stand up for conservative principles.

Representative Dave Brat of Virginia, a caucus member, said the group is talking with other Republicans about reviving the bill in a conversation not being led by GOP leaders. 

"We’re within striking distance," he said. "I’m not sure if the president got the story" that the Freedom Caucus is trying to get rid of Obamacare and insurance regulations to bring down premiums.

If Republicans do revive a health-care bill, that would be a shift from last week, when Trump said the party would move on to other issues, including a tax overhaul, after the long-awaited bill was pulled 30 minutes ahead of a scheduled floor vote.

Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said Thursday that she would like the House to bring the bill back. “I hope we do something next week," she said. “We’ve been working on a bill. We’re still working.”

Two-Week Recess

Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, who helped derail the bill last week, have been talking with some Republican moderate holdouts in an effort to identify changes that could help win their support for the measure. The House is scheduled to begin a two-week recess April 7, and Republicans would like to return home having passed some version of a health-care measure that only days ago was declared dead.

Democrats have indicated they may be receptive to working with the White House if Republicans focus on improving Obamacare.

“Many Republicans just want repeal,” Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, told MSNBC Thursday. “If they will take repeal off the table, Democrats will slide the chairs up to the table.” Durbin said Senate Democrats already are talking to Republicans willing to set aside the idea of repeal and that on some level in terms of talks “the effort’s underway.”

Durbin said he believes the White House is “more receptive now” to bipartisan negotiations after last week’s defeat in the House.

But Ryan said that wouldn’t be a good outcome for the GOP. 

“I don’t want that to happen,” Ryan said of a Trump partnership with Democrats, saying he favors a “patient-centered” approach while Democrats want “government running health care.”

Two Republican lawmakers, describing plans on the condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that House leaders would consider working into the weekend, although it was unclear what changes would be made to the Republicans’ health bill.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Thursday that no vote is currently planned on the measure.

"As of today, I do not have anything scheduled for next week," said McCarthy, but he said he would advise if anything changes for the future.

Mark Meadows

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, has been negotiating with colleagues on a compromise.

“There’s a real commitment among members he’s been speaking with to not give up and move expeditiously toward a path forward,” his spokeswoman, Alyssa Farah, said Wednesday. “But he doesn’t want to constrain himself to artificial deadlines like ‘before recess.’”

— With assistance by Erik Wasson, Arit John, and Justin Sink

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