In dropping health vote, US President Trump swallowed the need for a showdown

US President Donald Trump pauses as he speaks from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 24, 2017.
US President Donald Trump pauses as he speaks from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 24, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - When Speaker Paul Ryan arrived at the White House on Friday (March 24) to inform President Donald Trump that the health care bill he had made his first major legislative push could not pass, Trump had one reaction: He wanted revenge.

Furious at rebellious Republicans who refused to back the measure, Trump demanded that defectors cast "no" votes for all to see - even if it meant the measure's high-profile defeat, broadcast live on television.

But over a lunch of chicken, brussels sprouts and twice-baked potatoes in the Oval Office, Ryan pleaded with Trump to reconsider.

 
 

A loss could do lasting political damage to Republicans who supported the contentious bill, Ryan argued, especially those in competitive districts who were vulnerable to primary challenges. It would do nothing to isolate or punish the House Freedom Caucus, the conservative faction that had resisted the measure all along, he added.

And it could alienate rank-and-file Republicans needed to push through other challenging initiatives in the weeks to come, including an increase in the debt ceiling, a sweeping tax cut and the president's promised US$1 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) infrastructure package.

Trump remained unconvinced, but by midafternoon, armed with vote counts showing that the measure lacked a majority to pass, the president called the speaker to agree: You should pull the bill.

The collapse of the measure dealt Trump - a professed master deal-maker who campaigned as an agent of change - a remarkable setback in his young presidency, threatening to sap his influence and imperil his ambitious agenda. It also highlighted the importance of a pairing that will shape the Trump era: a president inexperienced in the complexities of politics and uninterested in the nuance of policy, paired with a vulnerable speaker struggling to corral competing coalitions within the Republican Party.

With repeal and replace now a hollow vow, Trump's anger at the defiant members of the Freedom Caucus was undiminished. But trying to put the best possible face on a major defeat late Friday afternoon, he confined his public criticism to Democrats.

"When you get zero from the other side - they let us down because they're hurting the people," Trump said in a telephone interview shortly after he had agreed to pull the measure. Asked whether he was worried the loss would hurt Republicans, he said, "I'll let you know in a year."

The demise of the American Health Care Act played out in a tense 24 hours that White House and congressional officials said proved a political education for Trump and his top advisers on the promise and peril of governing, even with unified Republican control. This account is based on government officials who were present during the last-minute negotiations and who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"We all learned a lot," Trump told reporters Friday afternoon. "We learned a lot about loyalty, and we learned a lot about the vote-getting process."

By Thursday afternoon, just hours before a scheduled vote, it had become clear that Trump's efforts - along with those of Vice President Mike Pence and other senior White House officials - had fallen short. At a meeting in Ryan's office in the Capitol with members of the recalcitrant Freedom Caucus, top White House officials laid out the changes they had made at the group's behest, including stripping it of federal standards for benefits that must be provided in health insurance policies, including maternity and wellness care.

Caucus members began outlining still more changes they needed to see before they could support the bill, angering Ryan and Trump's aides. Stephen Bannon, the president's chief strategist, and Mick Mulvaney, his budget director, told the group that the White House was finished negotiating and that the president wanted to know its position on the bill - yes or no.

Called on in turn to state their positions, several members refused. As tensions rose, Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina said that he spoke for the group and that they were not ready to commit. That meant the votes would not be there.

Ryan postponed the vote and called an evening meeting of House Republicans in the basement of the Capitol. Lawmakers munched on Chick-fil-A takeout as Mulvaney delivered the president's ultimatum on the health measure: Fall in line behind it or accept that former President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act would be the law of the land.

The speaker emerged and told reporters there would be a vote in the morning, rushing away from the news cameras as he was asked if Republicans had the votes.

In a 45-minute telephone call on Thursday evening between Trump and Ryan, the two commiserated over the demands of the caucus and strategised over the prospects for a vote on Friday.

Even as the two spoke, some of Trump's advisers were privately expressing frustration with Ryan, arguing that he had badly misjudged the situation and misled the president into tackling health care before a tax overhaul.

The meeting with the Freedom Caucus had prompted a realisation by Trump and his inner circle about how the group operated, and that offering it policy concessions would not win its support.

By Friday, Trump was out for blood, eager to call the bluff of the Freedom Caucus and savage it if the health bill went down in defeat. Bannon and Marc Short, Trump's legislative affairs director, both favoured holding the vote.

But Ryan, reluctant to suffer an embarrassing loss or to ask his fellow Republicans to take what could be a politically perilous vote on a measure that had little chance of passing, argued vigorously against it.

White House officials still believed as much as half of the 40-member Freedom Caucus could be pressured into supporting the bill, and Bannon demanded to see a confidential vote-count list that demonstrated otherwise. The numbers were grim, and Trump called Ryan to acquiesce into calling off the vote.

"I don't blame him for a thing, I really don't," Trump said of Ryan in the interview Friday. "Look, he tried. He tried very hard."