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Trump backs down: Obamacare subsidies can stay – for now

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., speaks during a news conference after a GOP caucus meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 26, 2017. One major sticking point between the White House and Democrats was resolved, reducing the likelihood of a government shutdown Friday. The White House confirmed that payments owed to health insurers under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act will continue.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., speaks during a news conference after a GOP caucus meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 26, 2017. One major sticking point between the White House and Democrats was resolved, reducing the likelihood of a government shutdown Friday. The White House confirmed that payments owed to health insurers under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act will continue. AP

With barely two days to go before the federal government would run out of money, lawmakers remained at odds Wednesday over a few details, although one major sticking point between the White House and Democrats was resolved, reducing the likelihood of a shutdown on Friday.

Chiefly, the White House confirmed that payments owed to health insurers under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act will continue, said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who spoke twice Wednesday with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

Trump had threatened to withhold the payments as a gambit to force Democrats to the bargaining table on a health care bill, and they hailed the retreat.

“Like the withdrawal of money for the wall, this decision brings us closer to a bipartisan agreement to fund the government and is good news for the American people,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

The break came after Pelosi and White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney clashed over the measure in a call Tuesday night, an aide familiar with the conversation said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss negotiations. It also came after House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said Wednesday that the spending bill wouldn’t include the Obamacare language that Democrats wanted in exchange for their support of the measure.

Pelosi told Mulvaney that Democratic negotiators want the payments in the short-term spending resolution. But the aide said Mulvaney had made it clear that, absent congressional action on the measure, the administration would cease making payments. In a statement earlier in the day, Pelosi pointed out that Mulvaney was a “chief architect” of the last government shutdown.

“Our country would be damaged by another Republican government shutdown, and given that Republicans hold the White House and have majorities in both the House and Senate, it is their responsibility to avert such a crisis,” Pelosi said.

The agreement to continue the payments is the second apparent concession made by the White House, as Trump prepares to mark his 100th day in office on Saturday. Earlier this week, Trump suggested he’s willing, for now, to step back from his controversial bid for money to start construction of a wall at the border with Mexico.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley, of New York, had stopped short of saying the lack of subsidies would be a deal breaker but others had warned it could be problematic.

“I think you will find that many Democrats would be opposed to voting for (the budget resolution) if the language is not included,” said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.

Republicans are likely to need Democratic help to pass the bill, as many conservatives have traditionally declined to vote for similar spending measures.

Republicans have 238 seats in the 435-member House of Representatives, meaning they can afford to lose only 23 GOP votes.

Still outstanding: the fate of money to extend health care benefits to retired coal miners and Democrats’ desire to help Puerto Rico, which is dealing with an economic crisis.

Senators, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., support a permanent fix for the miners’ benefit program, but Ryan prefers a 28-month remedy. A dispute over the timeline almost derailed the December deal to keep the government running. Talks are continuing.

The financially troubled island of Puerto Rico badly needs help to fund its Medicaid program, and the money is a key Democratic priority.

“We agree on in our caucus to make certain that we are taking care of the coal miners and their health care benefits, to also make certain that we have a provision in there to help the people in Puerto Rico with Medicaid,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

Despite the hiccups, Ryan expressed optimism that Congress would reach an agreement and avoid a government shutdown before funding expires at midnight Friday.

“We’re getting really close,” Ryan told reporters. “We are down to the last final things. So I think we’re making really good progress.”

He downplayed the possibility of lawmakers pushing off the Friday deadline by another week or two by passing an even shorter-term resolution.

“That’s not our intention or goal,” Ryan told reporters. “We want to get this done on time. That’s our plan.”

Nonetheless, a Republican aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss negotiations, said a one-week extension was possible for “breathing room” and to nail down legislative language.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article gave the wrong title for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

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