Senate Republicans are confronting a potentially career-altering decision: whether to vote for a health-care bill that polls show is vastly unpopular and could backfire stupendously. And on Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer had a chance to provide them some reassurance that President Trump wasn't going to throw them under the bus if things go sideways.
Instead, he basically shrugged his shoulders.
Reports in recent days have quoted Trump, in private settings, as both calling the House GOP's health-care bill “mean” and saying the Senate bill needed “more heart.” Asked about that second report, from CNBC on Tuesday, Spicer practically confirmed the quote — or at least he didn't dispute it, as the White House often does.
“The president clearly wants a bill that has heart in it,” Spicer said. “He believes health care is something that is near and dear to so many families and individuals. He made it clear from the beginning that it was one of his priorities.”
If you are a Republican who is thinking about sticking your neck out for this bill, that has to make you think twice.
Last month Trump held a Rose Garden celebration with House Republicans after they passed their version of a health-care bill. Some even thought that festivities were a little over-the-top. But the president clearly wanted to celebrate a first legislative win.
His actions since then, however, suggest he doesn't necessarily want his brand attached to this bill and all the sausage-making that goes with it. Recent polls have shown Americans oppose the legislation by a 2-to-1 margin or even a 3-to-1 margin, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates indicate it could reduce the number of insured Americans by 23 million over a decade and raise premiums for older, poorer people. And whatever the perceptions and projections are today, the law of unintended consequences certainly applies when it comes to large-scale legislation. It's a massively difficult vote to take for any member.
The White House will almost surely come around and say all the right things when the Senate ultimately reveals its bill. And for Trump and Spicer, it's probably smart to withhold your full endorsement to make sure that bill will reflect the things the White House feels are important. But the fact that Trump is saying these things behind closed doors about a bill he once celebrated has to make Republican senators think twice.
What if the bill they are working on does wind up causing major problems? What if it doesn't even pass, and most all of them put themselves on the record voting for something that can still be used in a pretty brutal attack ad using those CBO numbers? There is basically nothing to suggest that Trump is going to allow himself to go down with this ship. And unlike your normal politician, he's not going to feel bound by loyalty, his past statements or that Rose Garden celebration. When Trump feels like disowning something politically, Trump will disown it.
Perhaps the White House could be forgiven for not fighting back strongly enough against reports of Trump's initial “mean” comment last week. But now it's happened again; Trump and his White House have basically put the House's bill at arms-length twice in the span of a week. And on Tuesday it suggested that it reserves the right to bash the bill at a later date if Trump feels like it.
Given the bill will need 50 of 52 Republican senators to vote for it, that's a pretty terrible message to send right now.