Trust is a critical element in politics, and back in the day, a president’s disparaging remarks about his own party’s work would open a rift difficult to bridge.
But this is now and this is President Donald Trump, who last week reportedly told senators that the House health care bill he celebrated in the White House Rose Garden on May 4 was “mean, mean, mean.”
Yet the diss of his own party is unlikely to play a significant role as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell strives to secure at least 50 votes to bring a measure to the floor by the end of the month. Republicans may fear that Trump could later undermine them, but other worries, including campaign promises, are more immediate.
“We’re dealing with a different communications dynamic with this White House than what we’ve dealt with in the past, but that doesn’t mean things grind to a halt or stop happening,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican political consultant in Kentucky who has worked for McConnell. “McConnell knows he’s got to plow forward. No matter what else is going on in the world, he has to plow forward based on the agenda the Republican conference ran and that he believes is good for the country.”
McConnell has sought to temper Trump’s inclination for “drama,” telling Reuters last month that he’s “not been a fan of the tweets and the extracurricular comments.” A few days later, Trump suggested via Twitter that the health care legislation should be more generous.
Jennings noted the “mean” comments weren’t tweeted or uttered publicly – and because they are from a leaked conversation at the White House and attributed to sources, their context isn’t entirely clear.
“But at some juncture you just get used to the fact there may be communications turbulence along the way,” Jennings said. “That can’t really deter you from finishing whatever legislative mission you happen to be on at that moment.”
President Bill Clinton drew howls of protest from his own party in 1995 when he confessed at a campaign event that he had raised taxes “too much” in his first budget two years earlier. Angry Democrats accused him of denigrating a measure they had walked a plank to pass without the support of a single Republican vote.
But Republicans – some of whom were slow to embrace Trump and some who backed away from him last summer after the release of a tape in which he bragged about a sexual assault – are by now, well aware of Trump’s reputation for unpredictability.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said he expects McConnell to put the health care bill on the floor for a vote next week. He said he believes the vote will be close and smiled broadly when asked whether Trump’s remarks were troubling.
“You’ll have to take that up with the president, not me,” Burr said Monday at the Capitol as the elevator doors closed on him.
The “mean” quip may further “strain the bond, but it’s not going to break it,” said Norm Ornstein, a scholar on politics and Congress at the American Enterprise Institute.
“Private grumbling,” he said, is likely to be the extent of the tumult. “To have him turn around and call it ‘mean’ – which you know is going to be used in Democratic ads all around the country, can’t leave them very happy.”
But, he noted, as long as Republican primary voters continue to support Trump, “you’re not going to see these guys say, ‘That’s it, I want a divorce or even a trial separation.’”
Republicans, he said, “long ago made their peace with Trump, and many were explicit, ‘Yes, he’s going to say and do things that we’re not happy about but as long as we can get our agenda passed.’ This is all built on the notion that they can pass legislation and send it to him and he’ll sign it.”
McConnell’s secrecy on the health care legislation – 13 senators are writing the bill and some senators have expressed frustration that they don’t know any of the details – is part of keeping it away from the White House as much as anyone.
“McConnell just wants Trump to sign a bill and he knows he will sign whatever he gives him,” said Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky and a veteran political reporter, of McConnell. The dig at the House version helps McConnell by “making it look like he is riding to the rescue of people who need health care.”
McConnell’s office said Trump’s remarks – if he made them – would be a matter for House members.
Indeed, Trump’s quip that the House bill was “mean” did frustrate House members who said they were concerned the president appeared to be parroting Democratic criticism that the health care bill will cause 23 million Americans to lose health care coverage. And it’s not the first time that Trump has tweaked the House.
“If there’s some negative comment about our bill, and he pushed hard for that bill, then we just don’t understand the strategy and we need to get together and figure out where we’re going,” said Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va.
Still, Brat, a member of the House Freedom Caucus who championed a conservative bill, offered an alternative take: that Trump’s denunciation of the bill was a negotiating tool.
“He’s a business man. To me that comment is just a business guy motivating the Senate to do something,” Brat suggested. “He’s making them feel good that they can improve the bill. So good, if they can improve it and bring the price down that’s great.”
The White House did not deny that Trump made the remarks, but White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said he wouldn’t comment on rumors.
He said McConnell was working “very closely” with the administration to schedule a Senate vote.
“We feel very good about the progress that’s happening in a lot of the meetings behind the scenes to further that,” Spicer said. “I think the House looks forward to taking up the next piece when it moves out of the Senate.”
Republicans have 52 members in the Senate and could lose only two in order to pass the bill under the budget reconciliation rules that would block Democrats from filibustering the legislation. That means McConnell has very little room to maneuver.
More moderate Senate Republicans and those from states that have expanded Medicaid under the 2010 law have voiced worries that the House plan does not provide stability for families in Medicaid expansion programs, which would be phased out under the measure. Conservatives, meanwhile, say the alternatives don’t go far enough to repeal the legislation’s taxes and other provisions that they consider over-reaching.
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.