Amid celebration over a massive overhaul of the nation’s tax code, the White House strongly signaled on Wednesday that it was abandoning efforts to roll back what remains of Obamacare.
The president was first to hint as much when he triumphantly declared that Obamacare had been effectively ended by virtue of the tax bill’s inclusion of a repeal of the healthcare law’s individual mandate. The penalty for those individuals who don’t purchase insurance is, indeed, important to Obamacare’s functionality. But Trump’s claim ignored the massive chunks of the law that remain on the books, from the Medicaid expansion to the insurance subsidies, to the regulatory changes on the provider and insurer side.
Nevertheless, the president’s remark sent a signal to others that the White House wasn’t itching for a fight over those remaining Obamacare provisions. And, sure enough, later in the day, White House officials did little to dispute that reading.
“Taxes are our issue. Health care is theirs,” a senior White House aide told The Daily Beast on Wednesday, noting that “the parts of health care we’d be going after”—were they to attempt another run at repeal—were incredibly popular, or at least would prompt a significant enough backlash to make that effort counterproductive during an election year.
Asked point blank whether the White House still plans to make another run at repeal in the coming year, a separate White House spokesman referred The Daily Beast to a transcript of a call senior administration officials held earlier in the day. In the portion highlighted, however, those senior officials said the president planned to support two pieces of Congressional legislation designed to shore up what remains of Obamacare. There was no mention of a repeal-and-replace strategy.
The White House’s reticence to take another crack at Obamacare repeal marks a dramatic shift. Following the Senate’s failure to undo Obama’s signature law, Trump has publicly called for revisiting repeal in 2018. Political realities always stood in the way. And they’ve grown only more complicated following the surprise election of Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat, to the U.S. Senate.
And so, the president has chosen to emphasize the part of Obamacare he has undone, call it fatal, and hope that the Republican base is convinced. White House sources told The Daily Beast that Trump and his aides plan to play up the nuking of the individual mandate so that the GOP can go into 2018 touting a technical Affordable Care Act “repeal” to its voters and donor base.
"At least now, there's something," one senior White House official said.
The dropping of Obamacare repeal as a legislative priority comes as welcome news to some Republicans on the Hill who have little appetite, and even less bandwidth, to relive that battle themselves. Already, the congressional schedule is packed. Federal government funding is set to expire at midnight on Friday. And even if lawmakers avoid that fight, there are several other major legislative cliffs coming soon, including the expiring legal protections for undocumented children and the funding of children’s health care.
After those crises are resolved, all indications are that other legislative priorities will take precedence over any renewed push on Obamacare. Speaker Paul Ryan, fresh over the biggest victory of his tenure atop the House of Representatives, has signaled his intention to reform entitlement and welfare programs, which will require all the political capital Republicans can muster. And on Wednesday, Gary Cohn, the head of Trump’s National Economic Council, talked up a $1 trillion potential infrastructure package.
The president has his own project list too and it’s not clear if it’s in line with Republicans or, even, his own advisers. One Senator who recently met with Trump said that that the president never mentioned infrastructure as a priority.
But Trump has talked about other items. Among them is an “urban revitalization” plan that externally has been spearheaded by Darrell Scott, a Cleveland-area pastor who also served as an official on the Trump presidential transition team. Scott told The Daily Beast that he visited the president on Tuesday afternoon in the Oval Office to “bring the president up to snuff” on the “13-point plan.” The pastor said they discussed private-public partnerships, crime and violence in Chicago (a favorite topic of both candidate and President Trump’s), and affordable housing, health and wellness centers, and other components of their “black people plan,” as Scott has previously jokingly called it.
Chicago and poverty in black and minority communities in the United States is a “big job [that’s] not going to be easy,” Trump said in the Oval on Tuesday, according to Scott. “It'll probably be harder than this tax bill was,” Trump added.
Amid those and other initiatives, the White House and its national Republican allies will also be consumed by efforts to sell the tax bill to a skeptical public in a midterm election year. Marc Lotter, Vice President Mike Pence’s former communications director, said he expected both Trump and Pence to leave D.C. in the weeks ahead for campaign-style events to sell the cuts. He also imagined the bill taking up a healthy portion of the major addresses that the president has in the near future.
“As soon as we get back from the holidays we will have the one year mark of the presidency and ten days later will be the State of the Union,” Lotter told The Daily Beast. “It is lining up well for him to make a big push.”
Additionally, the Republican National Committee is expected to put resources of its own behind a campaign to sell the tax cuts. The party plans to “promote tax reform and hold Democrats accountable for opposing higher paychecks for the middle class,” RNC spokesman Michael Ahrens told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. He declined to get into specifics about what form that effort might take, but an RNC official told The Daily Beast that it would include both a paid component—traditional campaign-style communications such as ads and mailers—and a field component, or on-the-ground operations such as phone-banking and door-to-door canvassing.
Though Republican officials firmly believe that the poor polling around the tax cut package doesn’t reflect its actual and eventually popularity, they also recognize that there is work to do to convince the public. Another crack at Obamacare repeal would almost assuredly complicate that.
And yet, even as the White House was signalling its desire to simply move on, others weren’t ready to let go. A spokesman for House Freedom Caucus chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that they expect to make another run at repealing Obamacare in the new year.
"The President is right, repealing the individual mandate is a major step--no one should be forced to buy a product they don't want,” Ben Williamson, Meadows’ spokesman, said. “At the same time, the evidence is overwhelming that Obamacare is a broken, irreparable system that needs to be repealed, and we're still committed to doing that.”
Williamson said it wasn’t yet clear what form a renewed repeal effort would take, but other Republican legislators are already charting a path. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) huddled with colleagues this week to discuss the reintroduction of their Obamacare repeal bill next year. As originally devised, the legislation would turn Obamacare’s health insurance subsidies into block grants and leave it to state governments to administer them.
"I think we're all going to say that we ripped the heart out of Obamacare with the individual mandate," Graham predicted on Tuesday. "It's pretty hard to rip the heart out of it and not replace it."