Conservative groups open to new Obamacare repeal push

 politico.com  4/21/2017 11:05:19 PM 
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Deep-pocketed conservative groups that helped fuel the downfall of the House GOP’s Obamacare alternative are now quietly signaling they won’t oppose the White House’s renewed push to pass the bill.

Some of the most influential — and usually loudest — groups have privately told conservatives they want to see a deal go through, according to several people familiar with the conversations.

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Two large and influential groups backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch have signaled to Freedom Caucus members that they hope to be able to support the bill and want to see the tide turned after an embarrassment for the Republican Party.

While The Heritage Foundation hasn’t taken a position, its president, Jim DeMint, has told House members he would be more open to compromise this time around — so long as the compromise looks like ideas floated to conservatives over the past few days. The Club for Growth has also stepped in, running ads attacking moderates who might oppose a new White House deal.

The shift marks a sea change for President Donald Trump and Republican leaders, who had to contend with the same outside groups calling the earlier bill “Obamacare lite” — a label that made it all but impossible for the most conservative House members, many of whom campaigned on Obamacare repeal, to support a deal.

When Speaker Paul Ryan first introduced the earlier bill in March, the Koch groups, Heritage and others cheered on Freedom Caucus members who opposed it, encouraging them to kill the legislation. Within days of the rollout, the groups staged protests. They complained to the White House that Ryan hadn’t brought them in. And, to make it easier for members to publicly break with the president and House leadership, they created a seven-figure fund to support Republicans who voted no.

Leaders of these groups now say they’re willing to go along with a potential agreement struck by the White House, Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Tuesday Group co-chairman Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), so long as the legislative text reflects ideas offered to them by the White House. The changes include waivers for states that wish to opt out of major Obamacare regulations. Those promises appear to be on the brink of winning over some of the most vocal opponents of the previous bill.

"We are encouraged by continuing discussions to repeal Obamacare and replace it with common-sense solutions," said DeMint.

Legislative text was still being finalized on Friday afternoon. Meadows has privately told people he expects to reach a deal on which most of the House Freedom Caucus can vote yes.

But winning the support of conservative outside groups and members of the Freedom Caucus might cause new problems this time around.

Republican moderates are unhappy with many of the proposed changes, fearful that they would undermine protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions. Losing more of those votes could sink the bill, which the White House is pushing the House to send to a floor vote next week — something senior Republicans say isn’t feasible.

The latest effort to woo conservative groups started weeks ago, almost immediately after Ryan pulled the first, unpopular bill from the House floor. Top Trump officials started calling conservative group leaders to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to discuss how they got where they were in the days following the bill’s demise. Senior White House officials say Ryan didn't do enough outreach the first time around, so they began aggressively courting outside groups themselves.

Vice President Mike Pence made dozens of calls and negotiated privately with the influential, well-funded outside groups before leaving on his Asia trip last weekend. Marc Short, the White House's legislative director, who once worked for Freedom Partners, a Koch-backed group, gathered specific suggestions and tested compromise language.

Ryan has also stepped up his outreach to his party’s right flank. Within a week of the earlier legislation failing, some of the groups were huddling in late-night meetings with Ryan in his Capitol suite, scheduled as late as 9 p.m. to evade public scrutiny, according to people familiar with the meetings. Ryan told the groups he wanted to find a solution they could all support, the people said.

Freedom Caucus members and leaders of the outside groups have responded by pulling together to discuss what they could accept and what they could let slide. Their aides came up with a plan to try to loosen Obamacare insurance regulations they believe will lower premiums. And they agreed, if they get the changes written into bill text, that they’d all support a final bill.

“We’re all going to support or we’re all going to oppose, most likely ... because we have the same end goals,” said a Freedom Caucus member, when asked about the group's work with conservative groups. “If it’s something that is palatable for them, it’s probably going to be palatable for us.”

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