ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra.
This week, the Senate GOP health care plan died and was revived more times than we can count. So let’s dig in a bit to the efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is now insisting the Senate will vote to move forward on some legislation next week, but it’s still unclear if he’ll be able to round up the 50 votes he needs. Molly, where does this all stand?
MOLLY BALL: Well, a whole lot of nowhere. It’s sort of in limbo. I don’t think that – at least in the opinions of the sources that I talked to, it isn’t dead, but it’s definitely on life support. And nobody knows what it is, what it – there is this idea that there’s going to be a vote; they don’t know on what. Is it going to be on the bill they were talking about before that had to be pulled? Is it going to be on a repeal only or something like the 2015 bill, which was similar to a repeal only bill? Is this – is it going to be repeal and delay? Is it going to be something else entirely? There’s various amendments floating around out there – Cruz amendment, Senator Cassidy has an amendment. Everybody wants something different out of this bill. Nobody knows what the president wants out of this bill. And so, you know, they’re trying to get to a win, but at this point, you know, there’s not a lot of confidence in the caucus, and McConnell, crucially, has lost a lot of confidence. Previously, his caucus really saw him as this brilliant tactician, and this was the week that a lot of people woke up and said, wait, what is this reputation based on, what has he ever actually pulled off that was difficult in terms of rounding up votes to actually pass something? And, you know, the first tough – real test of that, he failed.
PETER BAKER: Well, you raise, I think, exactly right about what the president wants, right? So Mitch McConnell is the leader of the Senate, but the Republicans want leadership from the White House and they want the White House to tell them what direction the president wants to go. And you saw the conundrum that the Republicans are in in a 24-hour period. I mean, the president issued three different tweets or statements, comments, that were completely in contradiction, right? So they lose the votes to go forward on the repeal and replace, and he – his initial reaction is, fine, let’s just do repeal, we’ll come back to replace later. Then later he says let’s not do anything and let’s let it fail, and the Democrats will have to come to us and work with us. And then, finally, the next day he said, no, we have to do repeal and replace at the same time. So which of these three is it? I actually think it’s the last one. I think he actually doesn’t want there to be nothing there. He actually wants people to have health care. He said so on the campaign trail. And I think he understands that if you actually just do repeal only, there are a lot of conservative Republicans who will never vote for something later.
DAN BALZ: My sense is that in part McConnell wants at least closure on this chapter of the debate. Who knows what happens in two months or three months or four months. He wants to force a vote to get people on the record. As he said when he came out of the White House after that lunch, if we can get the bill on the floor anything can happen. People can amend it. You know, people can do whatever they want to it. I don’t think he’s confident that that’s going to produce a bill that ultimately passes. I mean, I think he must be discouraged by all the efforts he’s gone through to try to, you know, get 50 votes. They’re even more in the hole now because of Senator McCain’s illness and the fact that he’s not going to be around. So it may be that it’s just a way to say, OK, for those people who want to vote for repeal, we’re going to give you an opportunity to do that and then we’re going to see what else is there. And if there’s nothing there, we’re moving on.
MS. BALL: Now, I’ve been trying to figure out what is Mitch McConnell’s endgame. How does he want this process to end? Because he’s always got a strategy, he always has a goal in mind. And so – but I couldn’t tell from what was going on and from talking to people on the Hill where he wanted to end, up, so I asked a bunch of people in his inner circle, people in McConnell world, what does he want to get out of this. Does he want there to be a bill? Does he want there to not be a bill? It’s commonly believed that he’s basically motivated primarily by politics, so what does he think is the politically best outcome for his members? Would it be to take a vote that many regard as politically toxic? Would it be to not have to take that vote? Would it be for the bill to succeed? Would it be for the bill to fail? And really the consensus I got was he just wants this to be over with. This is not his favorite issue. He knows there were promises made. He just wants to get past, as Dan was saying, to close this chapter to get to things he’s much more enthusiastic about, like tax reform.
MR. BAKER: But do you think – does anybody here think, then, that he might work with Democrats for something that then doesn’t repeal and doesn’t replace, but maybe shores up these exchanges? Is there room for some sort of bipartisan move afterwards?
MR. BALZ: If that – if that were to bubble up, I suspect he would – he would be – he would allow himself to be part of that. But I don’t – I’m not sure that he’s going to lead that effort.
MS. BALL: The way he’s talked about it thus far has been mainly as a threat, right, not to say he’s really going to do it but as a way of saying to his caucus if you don’t help me out here I’m taking my ball and going home, and we don’t want that.
MR. COSTA: Well, the party’s struggling – the Republican Party’s struggling to be a governing party in a lot of ways, and if you think about what Republicans say privately, they got – they’d rather – the natural instinct for many of them is to run against Democrats on health care, rather than selling a particular plan.
MS. BALL: That’s right. And particularly on health care, which has not traditionally been one of their strongest issues. But, you know, they’re sort of having to pay the piper here. They got a lot of political juice out of opposing Obamacare. They really got a lot of votes, won a lot of elections, campaigning to get rid of this law that they were convinced was so terrible. Now that it’s the law of the land – you know, for so many years, people would say, oh, the Republicans don’t have a plan. And the Republicans will say, well, that’s not fair. That’s just a liberal talking point. It turned out they didn’t have a plan, and they’re paying the price for that now.
MR. BALZ: The other aspect that has complicated this, and to the degree to which the president is conflicted on this issue because he’s clearly in different places and more often than not in a more moderate to liberal position than the rest of his Republican Party. The Republican Party has got two divisions. One is the sort of the traditional hardline conservative versus, you know, more moderate conservativism. On top of that, you’ve got Trump’s populism. And that populism has a different strain and a different view of the role of government than much of the traditional Republican base. And that’s one of the clashes I’ve seen.
MR. COSTA: This is a president who said he wanted insurance for everybody.
MR. BALZ: Told you that.
MR. COSTA: Populist streak.
MR. BALZ: Right.
MR. COSTA: And, Peter, I wonder, what’s the investment the president has in getting this done? He’s going to Ohio next week for a rally. Should we expect him to urge Senator Portman there, a Republican, to get in line? I mean, when he had the senators over, as you mentioned, to lunch this past week, he sat next to Dean Heller, the moderate Republican from Nevada. He’s made veiled threats to Heller in the past. Made a veiled threat again this week. Is he going to step up the threats, or back away?
MR. BAKER: Well, that’s the question, right? And it’s been curious for a lot of Republicans to see him not fully engaged. I mean, he obviously wants a bill. He obviously knows it’s been a priority. But, you know, this has been “Made in America” week rather than healthcare week. And he didn’t before – you know, earlier this week when the thing fell apart – seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on the phone or, you know, greasing the wheels or twisting arms or doing that kind of thing. Now, remember, we said the same thing about Obama – President Obama. You know, how come he doesn’t get more engaged? But, you know, it made some people wonder what his priority really is.
MS. BALL: Well, and remember, this is the president who I think a lot of people really believed was a master negotiator. His whole campaign was our leaders are stupid people. Nobody knows the system better than I do, which is why I alone can fix it. This stuff is so easy, if our leaders just had any skill at negotiating. Now what we hear is, oh, you know, he’s new at governing, there’s a learning curve, you’ve got to give him some time, it’s not fair to hold him to these silly promises about doing it in the first hundred days. Well, it turns out, it’s harder than he was led to believe.
MR. BAKER: Yeah, well, when he says I alone can fix it what he means is he would do it by himself if he could get away with that. But that’s not how the system works, right? It’s you have 535 people on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, not to mention other players.
MR. BALZ: But even when he talked about the bill in front of the senators, some of the things he said were just not accurate.
MR. BAKER: Yeah.
MR. BALZ: So the credibility of a leader in order to close that deal is compromised if he’s not conversant with the details of the bill that are – that are in fact holding up a resolution.
MR. COSTA: It’s not going to get easier. As we were sitting down tonight there was more news on Friday night that the bill violates the so-called Byrd rule, which means there are some provisions in the current legislation that really shouldn’t be part of it if they want to pass it with 51 votes. So not easy, Republicans –
MR. BAKER: No, as I said, it doesn’t get easier from here. It only gets harder from here.
MR. COSTA: It only gets harder from here. We’ll leave it there.
And that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. But check back in next week to see where the Senate plan stands and if it’s passed. And while you’re online, be sure to check the Washington Week-ly News Quiz. Until next time, I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for watching.