WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Donald Trump suffered a stinging defeat in his first major legislative challenge on Friday (March 24) as rebel Republican lawmakers shot down his effort to repeal Obamacare.
It was the latest in a string of political stumbles and controversies for the nascent administration as Trump scrambled to achieve a crucial success to steady his already-listing presidency.
Barely two months into his term, Trump was forced to withdraw an embattled Republican health care bill, moments before a vote, leaving his campaign pledge to dismantle his predecessor’s health care reforms unfulfilled.
“We were very, very close” to securing enough support for the bill, Trump said in the Oval Office. But with no Democratic backing, “we couldn’t quite get there.”
Trump had thrown his full political weight behind the measure, spending days arm-twisting recalcitrant Republicans, and he declared himself “disappointed” and a “little surprised” by the defeat.
The battle was an eye-opening experience for Trump, a billionaire real estate tycoon who entered the White House with no experience in politics or government, including the delicate navigations of Congress.
And the bill’s defeat marked a second major policy setback for the new president, who has seen his attempt to curb travel from Muslim-majority countries twice frozen by the courts.
Instead of projecting humility, Trump went on the offensive Friday, branding Democrats as the real “losers” of the failed repeal bid because “now they own Obamacare.” “They own it, 100 per cent.”
The president met with House Speaker Paul Ryan earlier in the day, then spoke with him by telephone when it was clear the party did not have the votes to get its plan across the finish line.
“I told him that the best thing I think to do is to pull this bill and he agreed with that decision,” Ryan said.
But while Trump was quick to blame Democrats for not giving “a single vote” for his plan, Ryan owned up to the failures.
“I will not sugar coat this. This is a disappointing day for us,” said the top Republican in Congress.
Even as Trump expressed frustration, he said he was optimistic that his lieutenants will be able to craft an “even better” piece of health care legislation.
The Trump-backed plan, intended to expand free-market competition in the insurance industry and lower the cost of premiums for most Americans, would also have slashed public assistance to people who have no health coverage through their employer.
Some 14 million people stood to lose their coverage starting next year, according to congressional forecasts.
Basic benefits covered under Obamacare – such as maternity care and emergency room visits – would no longer have been considered essential and required for insurers to provide.
The bill now appears dead, with Republican lawmakers urging a return to the drawing board.
“Clearly, the votes weren’t there,” said Congressman Charlie Dent, one of several moderate House Republicans who expressed concerns over the bill’s impact on poor and elderly Americans.
“So I think it’s important now that we start over, and we do a durable, sustainable health care reform and it be done in a bipartisan way,” he added.
By pulling the bill, Ryan flew in the face of a White House that had declared negotiations over and demanded a vote on Friday.
Trump had put his reputation as a dealmaker on the line with the high-risk vote.
Congressman Mo Brooks, a member of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus that largely opposed the measure on grounds it was too similar to Obamacare, said he was “pleased as could be that the legislation has failed,” arguing it would have been bad for Americans.
But he refused to place blame on the president, who failed to rally enough Republicans to his cause despite days of intense negotiations.
“I don’t think this reflects on the president in any way, shape or form,” Brooks said.
But some conservative centrists expressed frustration with recalcitrant hardliners.
“The House Freedom Caucus just single-handedly saved #Obamacare,” Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger charged on Twitter.
LAW OF THE LAND
Passage would have handed Trump a monumental victory, and put him on a path toward fulfilling his promise to “repeal and replace” Obamacare.
Instead, as Ryan said, “Obamacare is the law of the land. It’s going to remain the law of the land until it’s replaced.”
It was not clear when Congress would return to health care, as Trump said he would shift quickly toward tax reform, another longstanding goal of Republicans.
But Democrats said they were open to cooperation – provided Republicans wanted to help fix the existing law.
“We’re ready to work with the president,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on CNN. “Take repeal off the table,” and “we’ll work with them on improving Obamacare.”
Trump’s losing adversary in the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton, warned: “This fight isn’t over yet and we can’t forget who it’s about.” She accompanied her message with a series of tweets highlighting stories from Americans who benefited from public health care.