Trump’s ‘party of health care’ promise bewilders Republican senators

The President has vowed to make the Republican Party the “party of health care.”

But the disagreements that embroiled the GOP just two years ago and dashed its seven-year promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, still threaten that goal.

Just a day after Trump descended on Capitol Hill with a grandiose appeal to dive back into the contentious health care fight, aides and members who lived a year-long stall out were scratching their heads, grappling with what another run at health care would even look like in the era of a Democratic-controlled House and what it could cost them in the next election.

“I almost can’t imagine a more tactically unwise move than the President’s announcement last night that he intends to make the Republican Party, the party of health care,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware.

The pledge from Trump came just a day after his Justice Department said it agreed with the ruling of a federal judge in Texas that invalidated the Obama-era health care law, a decision that caught Republicans off guard.

“I’m very disappointed and vehemently opposed to the administration seeking to invalidate the entire Affordable Care Act,” Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins told reporters. “If the administration is opposed to the ACA, and clearly there are provisions of the law that do need to be fixed, the answer is for the administration to work … with Congress and present a plan to replace and fix the law. Not to, through the courts, seek to invalidate it altogether.”

Asked if he supported the administration’s decision to seek to invalidate Obamacare, Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri and a member of party leadership in the chamber, told reporters “all I’m going to say about that for a while is that I’m eager to see what the administration proposes.”

Or as one Senate aide put it: “We are waiting with eagerness the White House chief of staff’s proposal on health care reform that brings to Republicans the consensus that has otherwise eluded us for over a decade.”

On Wednesday, the party seemed to be all over the map when it came to what the next steps in a health care negotiation would be. Some, argued that the administration has wide latitude to act on its own and has already moved ahead with association health plans. They also say congressional action likely wasn’t necessary.

“We are going to do association health plans administratively, and I think that is going to be a game changer, I really do,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi.

Others found more promise in reopening the health care negotiations even in an era of divided government.

“This is sort of like a new lease of life,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham following Trump’s lunch. “Listen Obamacare has failed and it’s not going to work … we have done enough to go after Obamacare, but not enough to replace it.”

Graham added “if we don’t have a proposal on health care then that is a mistake going into 2020.”

Republicans say they could pivot to a health care system that relies heavily on block grants to the states, but the party tried that in 2017 with members deeply divided about how to develop a fair formula to dish out the money to each state. Republicans also say they all agree that people with pre-existing conditions should be protected under a GOP law, but disagreements also raged on in 2017 about how stringent government regulations should be on companies to ensure they actually covered people with pre-existing conditions.

Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican up for re-election in North Carolina in 2020, said he welcomed a renewed health care debate and wanted to ensure that the White House helped lead the way.

“We need a solution to a problem,” he said. “Court decisions, other things could create a lot of uncertainty, and we are trying to head it off. I am glad to see the President is pointing it out. I look forward to seeing what kind of an outline we can run with.”

Republicans agree Trump’s presentation Tuesday had been compelling even if it had been short on details. Congress, they agreed had an obligation to act.

“The rising cost of health insurance is a huge problem for the American people,” said Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana. “And I think that’s why God made Congress, is to do something about these problems and we haven’t done a damn thing.”