Republicans Are Unsure What Trump Wants on Health Care

Does the president want to patch up the U.S. health care system or burn it down?

Sen. Lamar Alexander Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Like many average Americans, Senate Republicans spent the week scratching their heads about President Trump, wondering if he wants them to patch up the U.S. health care system or to help him burn it down.

Early in the week, the president seemed to toss his support behind a new bipartisan proposal that would continue subsidizing health care for millions of Americans for the next two years.

Trump had called Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander a few weeks ago – interrupting the senator's Saturday evening date with his wife – to prod him to restart health care negotiations with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. This Wednesday morning, Alexander got another phone call from the president, who seemed supportive of the broad contours of the deal, though he had yet to review all the fine print.

"We had a great talk," Alexander tells Rolling Stone. "I said, 'I've done what you've asked me to do.'"

But within about an hour, Trump had tweeted what many observers view as opposition to the very bipartisan agreement he had requested.

That tweet reverberated through the Capitol and reversed the momentum that had been growing to patch up Obamacare in the short term.

"The president's comments are causing some confusion amongst Republicans," one senior Republican senator told Rolling Stone on background so he could speak frankly. "So that's what I would watch. That's an opportunity for the president, if he wants to get something done and wants a bipartisan victory. If he got behind it, it would make a huge difference. That's not always the case, because sometimes he'll turn off as many Democrats as he turns on Republicans. But in this one, I think he could help."

Democrats all seem to be on board with the deal that also restores more than $100 million to help educate the public about their insurance options under Obamacare. That's why they're glad senior Republicans are finally sitting down with their party to negotiate a path forward: They don't trust the White House, and especially not Trump.

"The president clearly doesn't understand the American health care system. He doesn't know the first thing about what the Affordable Care Act does," Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy tells Rolling Stone. "It's impossible for me to respond to his comments on health care because they're largely nonsensical."

But the damage may already be done. Some prominent conservatives in the House are voicing loud complaints about the bipartisan health bill, and some of the more Tea-Party-tinged Republicans in the Senate are latching onto the president's negative tweet while painting the compromise as a taxpayer-funded giveaway to wealthy executives.

"I think it's a mistake to bailout the big insurance companies," Republican Sen. Ted Cruz tells Rolling Stone. "For whatever reason, Senate Democrats are fixated on providing corporate welfare to giant insurance companies instead of real relief to the millions of people hurting under Obamacare."

But the bill isn't doomed yet. Alexander and Murray formally introduced the legislation on the Senate floor Thursday and announced they had garnered a bipartisan mix of 24 cosponsors – a large chunk of the Senate.

Now they're working on educating their colleagues to try to broaden their support – a harder task on the Republican side given that they all pledged to repeal Obamacare. Still, many in the GOP are waiting and examining the details of the proposal.

"I don't want to just vote to put paint on rotten wood. I don't," Republican Sen. John Kennedy told reporters. "I'm not saying that we are doing that. I'm just trying to understand what the benefits are."

President Trump is coming to the Capitol Tuesday to join Republican senators for their weekly closed-door policy lunch. That will give Alexander and others a chance to try to woo the president and get him on board with the plan. GOP leaders say they're still expecting to see the proposal evolve to meet the president's demands.

"I think it's the beginning of a longer conversation, and we've got a lot of work to do," Sen. John Cornyn, the number-two Senate Republican, told reporters as he walked through the basement of the Capitol. "There are probably some changes that need to be made to satisfy the president. I think the president's support is going to be key."

There's some chatter that the health care patch may be rolled into a year-end spending bill that's essential to keep the government's lights on. But Democrats are hoping the GOP can get the president behind their plan soon and bring it to the floor as a standalone bill – they say Americans will soon be hurting because the president decided to cancel the payments that are essential to making Obamacare function.

"I would hope it would have gotten done a month ago where it would have been easier to be enacted," Sen. Murray, the other original sponsor of the proposal, told reporters on her way to a vote. "I would hope it would have gotten done a month ago before the president created more chaos. Every day that goes by has a challenge to it, and the sooner the better."