WASHINGTON — House Republicans return from spring recess to a jam-packed week needing to keep the government’s lights on before a Friday funding deadline and unsure if there will be time to make substantial progress on President Donald Trump’s priority to repeal and replace Obamacare.
“I don’t think the budget’s fully baked yet. … But that will consume us next week,” one Republican member told CNN on Saturday.
With the spending deadline looming and pressure coming from the White House to put a legislative victory on the scoreboard in the first 100 days, House Republicans will have their hands full next week. But members say their leadership was short on specifics during a private conference call with Republican members Saturday in part because of fear that the call could be leaked.
“They were short on detail, and they didn’t take any questions because they said they had to assume the call was being recorded by somebody, and it would get leaked,” the member said. “It was so content-free, it was embarrassing.”
Two lawmakers who were on the call said that the leadership’s goal was to vote on the spending bill by Friday, which leaves little room for error.
“The bottom line was that we hope to get approps done by Friday and are making progress,” a lawmaker told CNN. “We will whip the bill next week and, if possible, vote on Friday.”
Another Republican said they were still confident there wouldn’t be a government shutdown, but added “it’s always a possibility when you are dealing with a very raucous caucus.”
House leaders ran the call while Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon, a key player in the health care talks, and Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey chimed in to brief the conference on their respective issues.
During the brief call, which members said lasted just over 15 minutes, Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin told members that while health care remains a priority and he encouraged members to continue discussions, ensuring the government is funded is central to the week’s agenda. Ryan added that the Appropriations Committee has been working closely with the White House to ensure that “wherever we land will be a product the President can and will support.”
Given the importance of the two issues for the Republican conference, some lawmakers on the call said they were a bit put off that so little was discussed. One member said that Republicans in the conference were so widely surprised by how little was actually decided that one colleague texted him to joke: “Oh, wow, I didn’t think we would get that deep in the weeds. Now my head hurts.”
“It is a reflection of how the conference is divided that we still don’t have clarity and certainty on our work, and we will go back Tuesday and begin to have those frank discussions,” a Republican member said.
On health care, Tuesday Group leader Tom MacArthur of New Jersey and House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina held extensive discussions over the two-week recess and agreed to a potential breakthrough, but there is little evidence that their compromise has widespread buy-in from members of either of their groups or the broader GOP conference.
The talks between Meadows and MacArthur have continued to focus on three areas identified before the congressional recess: essential health benefits, which requires insurers to provide 10 services, including maternity, substance abuse and prescription drugs, in all plans; community rating, which bans insurers from charging more to people based on health history or gender; and guaranteed issue, which mandates insurers cover everyone regardless of their medical status, according to sources.
Lawmakers are looking at allowing states to obtain waivers to opt out of some of these protections, but requiring states to attest that the waiver’s goal is to reduce the cost of health care or increase the number of insured. Under the so-called MacArthur Amendment, states could never allow insurers to price plans based on gender or to turn away people because of pre-existing conditions.
Members are also discussing providing extra money to help defer states and insurers’ costs for caring for the sick through high-risk pools or other mechanisms. The current deal-making has centered on what triggers would allow states to opt out and how much additional funding would be provided. Any states that allow insurers to charge consumers more based on health status would also have to set up a high-risk pool to assist those affected.
The White House has been applying pressure to the House to vote on a bill sooner rather than later, but members said the call gave no indication that the votes are there.
A senior administration official said Trump “is not leaning in no a vote for this week,” but is getting updates from his team.
“He has had conversations with some of the leadership [on the Hil], so he’s engaged,” the official said. “There’s no question about that.”
People will see “increased engagement” from the President, such as phoning and scheduling meetings with members, “as we get closer to a vote,” the official said.
Ryan told his conference Saturday that the whip count will drive the timing on the GOP’s health care bill.
A lawmaker on the call said “the sense is we are getting closer, but that the final negotiations must be done face to face over the next couple of weeks. Bottom line: progress, but no final deal to get it out of the House yet.”