WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump could be on the verge of marking two significant legislative accomplishments at the start of his presidency. Yet he’s displayed a curious disconnect with Republicans on Capitol Hill, raising questions about how deeply he is delving into the specifics of legislative sausage-making.
In interviews and Tweets, Trump has been notably off-topic and off-message about the state of affairs in Congress.
His recent description of the health care bill suggested he was unfamiliar with how the bill addresses coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Congressional leaders and White House aides have struggled to agree on the level of optimism and timing for a vote.
During tense budget negotiations last week, Trump was sounding off about issues — health care for miners and a finance package for Puerto Rico — that were not major points of contention in the deal, which came to together Sunday.
It all added up to a portrait of a president who, even while he’s eager for legislative victories, pays little attention to the nitty-gritty details that can make or break them on Capitol Hill.
The White House on Monday struggled to explain the president’s assertion that the health care bill guaranteed coverage for people pre-existing conditions.
“Pre-existing conditions are in the bill. And I mandate it. I said, ‘Has to be,’” Trump said Sunday on CBS News.
The legislation being considered by House Republicans, in fact, does not require such coverage. It would allow states to opt out of the requirement under certain circumstances — a concession that won over conservatives while alienating some moderates. Trump also asserted the bill allows insurance sales across states lines, something that’s not in the bill at all.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said that ensuring “coverage of pre-existing conditions is at the core” of the effort to repeal and replace the law. “So that is something that he is ensured is in the current bill and we’ll continue to push for to make sure that coming out of the Senate and going to conference it’s there as well.”
The American Medical Association has said the Republican safeguards for patients with pre-existing conditions “may be illusory.”
Trump told Bloomberg News in an interview on Monday that the bill was “not in its final form right now” and predicted it would be “every bit as good on pre-existing conditions as Obamacare.”
House Republican leaders are hopeful for a vote on the health care plan ahead of a weeklong recess next week. But Spicer sought to tamp down expectations on Monday, telling reporters that “we’re not there yet,” even though the administration is “getting closer and closer every day.”
Two White House officials said they expected a vote on the health care bill on Wednesday or Thursday, depending in part on the timing of the budget vote. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus has taken the lead in discussions with Congress on health care, traveling to Capitol Hill multiple times for discussions with leadership, as well as lawmakers in both the conservative Freedom Caucus and moderate Tuesday Group.
Legislative director Marc Short and deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn have also been active in the discussions, according to White House officials. Vice President Mike Pence was also selling the health care plan in Congress and was inviting senators and their spouses to the Naval Observatory for a dinner on Tuesday night.
How involved Trump will be in the discussions remains unclear. But he has been sending mixed signals in his recent dealings with lawmakers.
In an interview with The Associated Press late last month, Trump surprised members of his administration and congressional leaders when he declared he would be announcing his tax overhaul proposal within days.
Last week, as lawmakers on both sides were working to finalize the budget plan, Trump took to Twitter, accusing Democrats of bailing out Puerto Rico. “The Democrats want to shut government if we don’t bail out Puerto Rico and give billions to their insurance companies for OCare failure. NO!”
The deal included nearly $300 million to help the Puerto Rican government with Medicaid financing to ease its budget emergency — a demand of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi — but did not appear to be central to the overall deal.
Democrats on Monday took a victory lap on a $1 trillion-plus spending bill to fund the government through Sept. 30. The bill successfully avoids a government shutdown, a priority for both Democrats and Republicans. But it includes no money for construction of Trump’s long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said there had been no “constructive engagement” from the White House on the spending plan to stave off a government shutdown. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a top Democratic negotiator, said he hadn’t heard from anyone in the administration at all.
This is not the first time Trump has appeared disconnected from the legislation he’s pushing. During the administration’s first attempt to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s health care law, Trump appeared unaware that his campaign pledge to ensure that insurance could be purchased across state lines was not included in the legislation, according to a person familiar with the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.
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