For Trump, it was the lost art of the
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[March 25, 2017]
By James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In the end, the
Closer couldn’t close the deal.
For President Donald Trump, the collapse on Friday of his first
legislative priority, a healthcare reform bill, was an embarrassing loss
of face after he and his administration insisted up until the time of
the vote by the U.S. House of Representatives that there was enough
It brings into question the neophyte president’s ability to move
big-ticket legislation through Congress. And for a celebrity businessman
who brands himself a deal-maker and fixer, it casts doubt over his
ability to deliver on his bold "drain-the-swamp" promises to shake up
The White House wants to advance, among other things, tax reform and a
massive infrastructure package this year, but now it must address
whether a change of approach is needed and whether congressional allies
such as House Speaker Paul Ryan can be counted on to deliver.
"This is the most consequential day of Trump's presidency and it's not
just a failure, it's a stunning failure,” Charlie Sykes, an influential
Wisconsin Republican political commentator and frequent Trump critic,
said on Twitter.
Trump appeared to chalk up the loss in part to his own inexperience
after House leaders pulled their bill to repeal and replace Obamacare
following defections by both moderate and far-right Republican members
who were unmoved by Trump's ultimatum to vote for the plan or live with
the current system.
“We learned a lot about loyalty. We learned a lot about the vote-getting
process,” Trump said after the bill was withdrawn, adding that he would
move forward with other priorities.
It was yet another setback for an administration barely two months in
office that has already seen its national security adviser resign, had
its immigration restrictions struck down in courts, and faces a barrage
of questions about the Trump campaign's ties to Russia.
Trump’s hallmark salesmanship seemed to abandon him this week. Although
he furiously courted the hard-line conservatives opposed to the reform
bill, they largely refused to yield, and in the process he alienated
moderates who initially supported the bill.
The president then switched tactics and gave up trying to bring the
conservative opponents into the fold, instead delivering an ultimatum
that all Republicans needed to back the bill. That did not work either.
Trump also failed to persuade the American public that the bill was an
improvement over the one it would have repealed and replaced: the
Affordable Care Act - the signature domestic achievement of former
Democratic President Barack Obama. Polls showed the replacement bill to
be deeply unpopular, and conservative Republicans complained that their
offices were being deluged by calls from constituents opposing it.
“This demonstrates that campaigning and legislating are two different
things,” said Jim Manley, once a top aide to former Democratic Senate
Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Representative Joe Barton of Texas blamed the failure on Republicans who
control the White House, Senate and the House still learning how to
govern after eight years of Obama.
"Sometimes you’re playing fantasy football and sometimes you’re in the
real game,” Barton told Reuters.
Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida called it “a big blow" for
the Republican agenda.
Trump’s efforts to engage the bill’s opponents at times seemed to muddy
the process further, as he largely cut Ryan out of negotiations. (Ryan
didn't seem to mind, calling Trump a "great closer.")
But even as Trump offered concessions, conservatives did not budge and
moderates were angered.
Stuart Diamond, a professor who teaches negotiation at the Wharton
School at the University of Pennsylvania, said Trump’s strong-arm
[to top of second column]
President Donald Trump talks to journalists at the Oval Office of
the White House after the AHCA health care bill was pulled before a
vote in Washington, U.S. March 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
“Threats don't work in general,” he said. “They cause damage to
relationships. They definitely don't work in a situation with a lot
of different stakeholders, where the power is distributed.”
ESCAPING A LOOMING DISASTER
After the bill was revised along Trump’s specifications, the
Congressional Budget Office, which analyzes the financial impact of
proposed legislation, determined that the bill would deprive 24
million Americans of health insurance over the next decade and slice
about $150 billion off the budget deficit.
The CBO said the bill would not affect the number of uninsured but
it would reduce the budget deficit significantly less than the
original bill, troubling fiscal hawks. Even as Trump and the White
House pushed harder, opposition to the bill among the rank and file
Representative Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican who is also a
small-business owner, said Trump was still getting used to
governing. “There are parallels between government and business, but
they are not exactly the same.”
The lesson from the debacle, said John Feehery, a Republican
strategist who was an aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert,
is that the White House needs to take a firmer hand in crafting
legislative strategy. On healthcare, Trump largely deferred to
Ryan’s office, which drafted the bill in secret, sowing mistrust
Congress now faces arguably an even tougher legislative reform:
overhauling the tax code, which has not been done since 1986 and
involves navigating a snake pit of competing special interests. Like
Trump's healthcare proposal, it could struggle against public
opinion, with Democrats likely to cast it as a Republican giveaway
to the rich.
There was also a feeling among some Republicans that they had
escaped a looming disaster. Even if the bill had passed the House,
it faced a radical overhaul in the Senate, meaning both chambers
would have been tied up battling over the bill for weeks, perhaps
And if it became law and millions of voters lost health insurance,
some Republicans feared they could suffer at the polls.
Instead, those Republicans have to hope voters will not punish them
for failing to deliver on a promise they had been making since
Obamacare was passed in 2010, and that they will still believe this
president when he says he can strike a deal.
“This is a promise the GOP made to voters. They need to get it
right,” said Rachel Bovard, a policy analyst at the conservative
Heritage Foundation, as she urged Republicans to "start over."
It is unclear when that could happen. "This bill is dead,” said
Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, a member of the House
(Additional reporting by Dustin Volz, Richard Cowan and Joseph Ax;
Editing by Jason Szep and Leslie Adler)
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