News analysis

Deal-maker trumped by his own party

US President Donald Trump pauses as he speaks from the Oval Office of the White House.
US President Donald Trump pauses as he speaks from the Oval Office of the White House.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • The gambit was straight out of a corporate deal-maker's playbook: President Donald Trump told House Republicans that it was now or never to repeal and replace Obamacare and demanded a vote by Friday. No more negotiations.

It was a bluff, and a stubborn band of Republican lawmakers called him on it.

Now Mr Trump has been struck with a humiliating defeat on his first major legislative test, and it's a body blow that calls into question his ability to move his agenda through Congress, including proposals on tax reform and infrastructure spending that have helped propel a stock market rally since his election.

The disintegration of the Republican healthcare plan also undermines Mr Trump's deal-making reputation and emboldens factions in Congress to challenge him at every turn.

"Failure is a very damaging thing politically," Mr Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the conservative American Action Forum and a veteran Republican policy adviser, said in an interview before the vote was cancelled. "I don't see how you recover."

A week that began with FBI chief James Comey placing the Trump administration under a cloud by confirming an inquiry into ties between his campaign officials and Russia ended with a dramatic rebuke from a Congress his own party controls. The losses are piling up for a president whose candidacy was based above all on success.

The White House had staked its success on Mr Trump playing the role of "closer".

Earlier on Friday, with the vote still on the congressional calendar, White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Mr Trump had been working the phone aggressively with lawmakers. He said the media was being "so negative" for asking about the measure's prospects.

"He has left everything on the field when it comes to this Bill," Mr Spicer said. "The President and his team have committed everything they can to making this happen."

But the Manhattan property mogul, celebrated in his election campaign as a genius deal-maker, met his match in a former small-town real estate agent, congressman Mark Meadows. Although Mr Trump tried to lay some of the blame for failure on a lack of support from Democrats, it was the North Carolina Republican who held together a group of arch conservatives in the House. Their demands for concessions were what ultimately scuttled a Trump-backed plan to replace former president Barack Obama's signature healthcare law.

A week that began with FBI chief James Comey placing the Trump administration under a cloud by confirming an inquiry into ties between his campaign officials and Russia ended with a dramatic rebuke from a Congress his own party controls. The losses are piling up for a president whose candidacy was based above all on success.

No recent president has lost in Congress on a key agenda item so early in his term. Congressional Democrats backed president Bill Clinton on his 1993 budget reduction Act despite politically dangerous tax increases. President George W. Bush won passage of his No Child Left Behind education law and tax cuts in 2001. Mr Obama prevailed on his economic stimulus and later the healthcare law that President Trump tried to repeal.

Mr Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence and top White House aides had been working closely with Speaker Paul Ryan on the health Bill since the election and were heavily involved in negotiations for a deal. That leaves questions about whether they will be able to pull the Republican Party together on other tough issues including deregulation, infrastructure spending and corporate tax cuts.

In many ways, Mr Trump is experiencing early in his presidency a lesson eventually learnt by his predecessor Obama, also a relative newcomer to the capital who came into office confident of changing the political climate: In a closely divided country, Washington gridlock doesn't break easily.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 26, 2017, with the headline 'Deal-maker trumped by his own party'. Print Edition | Subscribe