President Trump on Tuesday interrupted his celebration of the end of the Russia investigation to unexpectedly reignite a debate over repealing Obamacare, an issue that hurt his party in the midterm election and immediately gave Democrats hope for some advantage in 2020.
The president came to the Capitol to rally with Senate Republicans after Sunday’s news that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had found no criminal evidence of conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. By renewing the healthcare debate, however, he risked reopening divisions in his party over its inability to agree on a replacement for Obamacare that would, as he’s promised, insure everyone.
In a closed-door lunch with the senators, the president issued a vague call to them to address healthcare to lower costs, according to several lawmakers in the room.
“He led off on that and he spent a good bit of time on it. It’s clearly on his mind, and it’s clear to me he wants us to take another run on it,” said Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana. “I thought that he’d immediately start talking about the Mueller report or China,” the country at the center of Trump’s trade agenda.
In a legal filing late Monday, Trump’s Justice Department reiterated the administration’s support for a controversial federal lawsuit in Texas brought by Republican state officials that seeks to repeal the entire 2010 law. Yet it went further than before, expressing support for full repeal instead of a portion of the Affordable Care Act.
The legal filing and Trump’s comments Tuesday gave Democrats, who are divided over how to respond to the Mueller probe’s conclusion, a renewed political opportunity to turn back to healthcare and defend the increasingly popular law that helped their party retake the House in November’s election.
“It certainly gives you a great hook for talking about this, in this moment where you feel a little bit defeated, at least emotionally,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster.
Making significant changes to the law would encounter resistance from Democrats as well as some Republicans, who acknowledge the program’s widespread acceptance and the popularity of its coverage protections for people with preexisting medical conditions.
Kennedy and other senators said Trump provided no details, nor did he bring up a bipartisan initiative to lower prescription drug prices despite his past suggestions that lowering drug costs is a priority.
Lawmakers said he only stipulated that any plan must cover people with preexisting conditions, though he offered no suggestions for alleviating the huge potential cost to insurers. Initially, the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that individuals purchase insurance gave companies new customers, offsetting their costs of accepting those with medical conditions. But Trump and Republicans opposed the mandate, which was repealed in the tax bill the party passed in 2017.
The president was no more specific in public, telling reporters on the way into the meeting that “the Republican Party will soon be known as the party of healthcare,” reinforcing the same message he tweeted minutes earlier.
With Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Trump spent much of his first year in office trying to fulfill a Republican promise to repeal and replace Obamacare. He came within a vote of getting a repeal bill through the Senate in July 2017; that effort ended when an ailing Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, gave it a thumbs down.
Stung by the defeat and then punished by voters, many Republican lawmakers tried to move on this year. But Trump stewed, railing against McCain as recently as last week, seven months after his death.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who was close to McCain but has become one of Trump’s top allies, said he told the president over the weekend that the release of the summary of the Mueller report by Atty. Gen. William Barr would give him valuable political capital.
The president’s new healthcare push, Graham suggested, was motivated by Trump’s boost in confidence.
Graham, echoing other Republicans at the lunch, praised the president and argued that the party could win the debate. “If there’s a message to be learned from 2018 on policy, it’s healthcare,” he said.
No Republican voiced opposition in Trump’s presence to pursuing the issue, according to Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota.
“I think he really feels like right now he has some wind at his back; it’s time to propose serious policy and work on it, and healthcare is one he wants to work on,” Cramer said.
While many polls show Americans would like to improve the law, only a minority want to dismantle it.
“This was clearly a winning issue for the left in 2018,” said Carlos Curbelo, a GOP critic of Trump who lost his Florida House seat in the November election. “It was the issue they ran a lot of generic campaigns on and that yielded them 40 House seats. So if the president wants to double down on that or have a repeat of 2018, then this makes perfect sense. It’s just completely reckless and tone-deaf.”
“I think that that was the biggest thing that happened in the last 24 hours in terms of the 2020 debate,” pushing aside the Mueller debate, said Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for social policy and politics at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.
In a review of 2018 political ads in races where Democrats picked up Republican seats, her group found that a majority were about healthcare.
Though Democratic presidential candidates are divided over support forsingle-payer government health plans, they are united in keeping Obamacare unless they achieve that.
“Over 30,000 Americans could die every single year if Trump gets his way and destroys the Affordable Care Act,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent running for the Democratic nomination, tweeted Tuesday. “Our job is to fight back against his efforts to take healthcare away from millions of people.”
House Democrats also pounced on the Trump administration’s filing in the Texas lawsuit. At a news conference at the Capitol, they highlighted proposals to improve the Affordable Care Act and hammered Republicans for once again threatening protections for Americans with preexisting medical conditions.
“The GOP will never stop trying to destroy the affordable healthcare of American families,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said, flanked by senior Democratic lawmakers and freshmen, many of whom ran last year on a healthcare platform.
The House Democrats’ measures to improve Obamacare would strengthen insurance markets that have been undermined by the administration and provide more assistance to Americans struggling with rising premiums.
Times staff writers Molly O’Toole, Eli Stokols and Janet Hook contributed to this report.