- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2017

President Trump said Wednesday he still wants to tackle health care before moving on to tax reform, a shift that raises the stakes for congressional Republicans struggling to pin down an Obamacare replacement and untangle a web of fiscal deadlines.

After the collapse last month of the first GOP bid to repeal Obamacare, Mr. Trump said he was done with the thorny issue and was instead ready to pass historic tax cuts.

But he’s now come back to congressional Republicans’ stance, which is that the savings from repealing and replacing Obamacare will allow for deeper tax cuts.

“Health care’s going to happen at some point,” Mr. Trump said in an interview on Fox Business Network. “Now, if it doesn’t happen fast enough, I’ll start the taxes. But the tax reform and the tax cuts are better if I can do health care first.”

His budget director, Mick Mulvaney, echoed his comments in separate interviews with cable networks.

Their prodding reflects growing concern about legislative pile-up confronting Republicans, who have yet to notch any major wins from Capitol Hill this year.

“They have to make it work, because their standing in the House is in jeopardy, and Trump’s standing to do things after the midterms is as well,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said.

Due up as soon as Congress returns from a two-week spring break is a funding bill to keep the government open beyond April 28.

Republicans are also trying to bridge a rift on health care between conservatives, who want a direct assault on Obamacare, and centrists who are leery about unwinding Obamacare’s consumer protections and coverage gains. The split forced GOP leaders to pull an initial health care bill moments before it hit the floor last month.

“We haven’t failed. We’re negotiating, and we continue to negotiate,” Mr. Trump said.

GOP leaders said Mr. Trump has got it right.

“Speaker Ryan has consistently noted the benefits of doing health care reform before tax reform,” said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. “Health care discussions continue as we try to craft a plan that can garner 216 votes.”

Republicans figured they’d be toasting victory on Obamacare by now, and would be well on their way to crafting a 2018 budget that would pave the way for the tax code overhaul.

Instead, they’re still struggling to plug the gaps on their health care bill, with GOP leaders introducing a new legislative patch late last week.

Mr. Trump insists there’s been movement, as conservatives pitch a plan to let states seek a waiver from Obamacare regulations, freeing healthier people to pay less while trying to post billions to support sicker customers who could be priced out of the market. Leaders haven’t produced legislative text or signaled they’re ready to vote, however.

“I think we’re doing very well on health care,” Mr. Trump said. “It’s been very much misreported that we failed with health care.”

GOP sources freely admitted Wednesday they will miss the April 15 deadline for writing the 2018 budget, yet noted that Congress can work on pieces of it even without having a final document approved.

“It’s a complete mess of their own making,” said Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “President Trump and Republicans need to stop howling at the moon over the Affordable Care Act and work with Democrats to keep government open and follow the regular order of the House.”

Democratic leaders also faulted Mr. Trump for leaving insurers and their customers on tenterhooks regarding Obamacare payments that are critical to the stability of the insurance market, as Republicans struggle to plot out their next steps.

House Republicans had won a ruling last year that President Obama was breaking the law by making the “cost-sharing payments” to insurance companies, which help low-income customers with deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs, even though Congress had specifically canceled that money.

The Trump administration could easily drop Mr. Obama’s appeal of the ruling, but the White House and Republicans now realize they may have to keep the payments flowing until they figure out how to get rid of Obamacare and dispose of the suit.

Health groups, including the nation’s leading insurers’ lobby, told Mr. Trump in a Wednesday letter they need to know whether the payments will be guaranteed through the end of next year so they can price their plans and decide whether to participate in Obamacare’s exchanges at all.

Yet Mr. Trump declined to tell The Wall Street Journal whether Congress should appropriate the funding or end the payments by dropping the appeal.

“It’s actually a big story that a lot of people don’t know about. They’ll find out about it, perhaps,” Mr. Trump told the newspaper.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Mr. Trump was flirting with disaster to gain the political upper hand in the health care debate.

“President Trump is threatening to hold hostage health care for millions of Americans, many of whom voted for him, to achieve a political goal of repeal that would take health care away from millions more,” the New York Democrat said. “This cynical strategy will fail.”

David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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