GOP faces make-or-break moment on Obamacare repeal

House Republican leaders and White House officials are increasingly confident about passing their long-stalled Obamacare replacement bill: More lawmakers than ever are committed to voting “yes,” they say, and GOP insiders insist they’re within striking distance of a majority.

But the window of opportunity for Speaker Paul Ryan and his leadership team is closing fast. The House is scheduled to leave town for a one-week recess on Thursday, and some senior Republicans worry that failing to get it done by then would fritter away critical momentum. Skittish Republicans would return home to face a barrage of pressure from Democrats and progressive outside groups.

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Some senior Republicans and White House officials are advising Ryan (R-Wis.) and his top lieutenants to cancel the recess if needed, and to keep the House in session until they have the votes.

“I think they could have voted on Friday,” President Donald Trump said in a Sunday interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” to discuss his first 100 days in office. “I said, ‘Just relax. Don’t worry about this phony 100 day thing. Just relax. Take it easy. Take your time. Get the good vote and make it perfect.'”

“I think health care reform, repealing and replacing Obamacare is just around the corner,” Vice President Mike Pence added on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I think we’re close.”

While Trump and the White House have been overly optimistic before about repealing Obamacare, senior House Republicans agree with them this time.

“We’re very close,” Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures.”

At a Republican Party event in Texas on Saturday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California hinted strongly that a vote is imminent.

“Stay tuned — watch next week — and you will see the repeal and replace of Obamacare,” McCarthy told the crowd, according to social media reports.

House GOP leaders say publicly that they have until around the end of May to pass a health care reform bill. The reason has to do with arcane but critical parliamentary rules and the sequencing of big-ticket GOP agenda items.

The short version is this: Republicans need a new budget in order to pass a tax cut or tax reform package. But once they pass a new spending blueprint, they lose their authority provided by the current budget to approve health care reform using the majority-vote tool called reconciliation. That means it would take 60 votes in the Senate, rather than 51, to pass a bill — an impossible hurdle given Democratic opposition.

In other words, it looks like now or never.

“This is it,” said an administration official closely following the repeal effort. “We get it done now, or we don’t get it done ever.”

Ryan, McCarthy, Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Lousiana and Chief Deputy Majority Whip Patrick McHenry of North Carolina spent the weekend working the phones trying to whip wavering moderates, sources said. They’ve put members in touch with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who has briefed the lawmakers on administrative actions he intends to take to stabilize health care markets and explained how the legislation would work.

Ryan’s health care adviser, Matt Hoffmann, has also been educating Republican members.

A revised version of the House GOP bill negotiated by centrist Rep. Tom MacArthur of New Jersey and House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina secured the backing of all but a few Freedom Caucus members — a huge boost for Ryan and his leadership team. The group’s endorsement, along with new support from outside conservative groups that blasted an earlier version of the bill, has given GOP leaders momentum they’re unlikely to have again.

“The repeal and replace issue has dogged us this first 100 days, and there are a lot of us frustrated by the fact we haven’t settled it already,” said Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas, a deputy whip. “My hope is that we can move this across the finish line before the next recess.”

Complicating the legislative maneuvering is a looming Friday deadline to fund the government through September.

Although an agreement is expected soon, House GOP leaders had yet to strike a formal deal with Democrats as of Sunday afternoon. Just after McCarthy said on the House floor Friday that leaders could unveil a deal as soon as that day, Democrats sent Republicans a new list of demands, according to several sources from both parties familiar with the talks.

Among the requests are money for the government of Puerto Rico, removal of some environmental provisions, and additional funding for the New York City Police Department to protect Trump when he travels there.

While the issues will not derail the omnibus package, and an agreement is expected by late Sunday or early Monday, the must-pass legislation could eat up time leaders need to round up votes for health care.

Ryan and his team still have to nail down about 20 undecided Republicans. More than 15 lawmakers — mostly moderates — have said publicly they will not vote for the current bill. So GOP leaders, who can only lose 22 votes, are scrambling to persuade those who haven’t made up their minds.

On Friday, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, the former chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and a staunch ally of leadership, said he’s “not comfortable” with the health care compromise. Upton’s position is especially notable because he has helped craft dozens of GOP Obamacare repeal bills in the past.

Likewise, Rep. Don Young of Alaska emerged from a one-on-one meeting with Ryan on Friday saying he still hadn’t made up his mind. Ryan called GOP holdouts to his office that day to discuss their outstanding concerns.

House Republicans are under enormous pressure from all sides. Democrats are determined to make health care a driving issue of next year’s midterm elections regardless of whether Obamacare is ultimately overturned, but Republicans from competitive districts who back the repeal measure will have an extra-large target on their backs. If the GOP falls short, however, Republicans could face primary challengers from the right.

Ryan’s reputation as speaker and his standing with Trump are also on the line. After the embarrassing collapse of the first Republican stab at passing a bill in late March, the speaker needs to show Trump he can deliver.

Trump will not be endlessly patient, and if Hill Republicans fail, the president is sure to shift the blame to someone other than himself.

The president’s finger-pointing was on full display at a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on Saturday night. After promising that “we’re going to give Americans the freedom to purchase the health care plans they want, not the health care forced on them by the government,” Trump singled out two House Republicans in the crowd.

“I’ll be so angry at Congressman [Mike] Kelly and Congressman [Tom] Marino and all of our congressmen in this room if we don’t get that damn thing passed quickly,” Trump said of two of his earliest and most loyal supporters.

After a pause and loud cheers, Trump added, “They’ll get it done. We know them. They’ll get it done.”

On Sunday morning, Trump tweeted that a “New healthcare plan is on its way” that will “have much lower premiums & deductibles while at the same time taking care of pre-existing conditions.”

If GOP leaders don’t hold the vote soon, they’re bound to face internal pressures as well. Meadows told reporters Friday that while he hopes the current version passes, he’s readying a Plan B “backup” repeal bill if the legislation fails.

“I don’t think [the bill] has to be voted on next week, [but] I certainly would be extremely disappointed if it weren’t,” Meadows said, later adding: “We’re going to vote on something.”

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Congressional leaders near agreement on spending deal

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The deal could be announced as early as Sunday evening if the few remaining issues are dealt with. | Getty

Congressional leaders were near an agreement Sunday on a massive spending deal that would deliver both parties funding for key priorities, according to four congressional aides from both political parties.

If clinched, the deal would deliver President Donald Trump billions in new defense spending to combat terrorism and $1.5 billion for enhanced border security, though it would deny him any money for a physical border wall, the sources said. It would fund the government through September and contain key bipartisan priorities: $2 billion in new funds for the National Institutes of Health and former President Barack Obama’s cancer moonshot, as well as a long-term extension of miners’ health insurance that expires on Friday.

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The deal could be announced as early as Sunday evening if the few remaining issues are dealt with, the aides familiar with the negotiations said. Democrats were still pressing over the weekend to fill Puerto Rico’s Medicaid coffers through the end of summer 2018, though Republicans favor moving unspent money to patch the funding problem on the island, according to a Republican congressional aide.

The hang-up over the issue stalled a final deal last week and necessitated a weeklong stopgap bill to avoid a government shutdown. Two Democratic aides said there were more outstanding issues than just the Medicaid funds.

House Democrats were also concerned Republicans would move to a partisan vote to repeal Obamacare immediately after striking a bipartisan deal on spending bills. But the Trump administration agreed to continue making payments for Obamacare’s subsidies that help low-income Americans afford insurance, a significant win for Democrats trying to protect the law.

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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Trump did not clear Duterte invitation with State Department: report

President Trump invited controversial President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines to the White House without consulting the State Department, according to a new report from The New York Times

The Times reported Sunday that both the National Security Council and the State Department were caught off guard by the announcement, which set off criticism from human rights groups. 

“By essentially endorsing Duterte’s murderous war on drugs, Trump is now morally complicit in future killings,” John Sifton of Human Rights Watch told the Times.

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Trump and Duterte spoke by phone Saturday, when Trump invited the leader to the White House “to discuss the importance of the United States-Philippines alliance,” according to a readout of the call provided by the White House. 

Trump’s call with Duterte was described as “very friendly” in the White House statement and chief of staff Reince Priebus defended it on Sunday, saying it was “all about North Korea.” 

Since taking office, Duterte has encouraged the extrajudicial killings of thousands of his own citizens accused of dealing or using drugs. He has also compared his campaign to kill drug users to the Holocaust. 

“Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now, there are 3 million drug addicts [in the Philippines] … I’d be happy to slaughter them,” he reportedly said in September.

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Sebastian Gorka leaving White House as soon as ‘this summer’

A senior White House official confirmed to The Hill on Sunday that Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president, will be departing that role as soon as “this summer.”

The same official said that Gorka, 46, was brought in to the Trump administration to initially provide big picture, counter-terrorism expertise. 

“To defeat extreme Islamic terrorism, you can’t kill your way out of the problem. A plan is needed to defeat the ideology the same way Nazism was defeated” the official, who asked not to be named, said. 

“[Gorka] was here to provide an overall strategy in that regard.” 

Gorka will take an outside position that deals with the “war of ideas” regarding radical Islamic extremism, sources told The Washington Examiner on Sunday.

He has served as both a national security adviser and on the Strategic Initiatives Group, which is an organization within the White House, according to the publication.

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The news he is accepting an outside role comes after reports raising questions about his security clearance status.

Gorka’s position in the SIG was meant as only a temporary role, a source told the Washington Examiner. 

A spokesman for the National Security Council told the publication he did not “personally know” about Gorka’s future.

Last month, a Democratic lawmaker asked the White House to hand Gorka’s immigration paperwork over to the House Judiciary Committee for review.

In a letter addressed to Trump, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) cited a report in The Forward, an American Jewish news outlet, linking Gorka to a far-right group in Hungary, saying the judiciary panel needs to “be assured that he did not enter this country under false pretenses.”

The Forward reported on Thursday that Gorka was a formal member of the Historical Vitézi Rend, a Hungarian far-right group whose predecessor, the Vitézi Rend, was recognized by the State Department as under the direction of the Nazis. 

Updated 9:52 p.m. 

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Trump administration lawyers to discuss Paris climate deal

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A Thursday meeting of Trump administration officials about the Paris agreement focused largely on legal issues. | AP Photo

Trump administration lawyers plan to meet Monday to discuss the legal implications of remaining in the Paris climate change agreement, two people familiar with the meeting told POLITICO.

Critics of the 2015 accord have quietly been mounting a behind-the-scenes effort to convince President Donald Trump that sticking with the deal would pose legal hurdles.

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The meeting is expected to include lawyers from the White House, National Security Council, State Department and Justice Department, the sources said, though they said the list of attendees and timing could still change.

A Thursday meeting of Trump administration officials about the Paris agreement focused largely on legal issues. Critics of the deal, led by chief strategist Steve Bannon and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, have pushed several legal arguments, including that the Paris deal restricts countries from weakening their domestic emissions-reduction targets and that any decision to remain could be used in court to counter the administration’s bid to undo former President Barack Obama’s climate regulations for power plants.

The Monday meeting was organized after Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a proponent of remaining in Paris, called for a deeper assessment of those legal questions after the issue bubbled to the forefront on Thursday, sources said. Backers of the accord were surprised when the White House counsel’s office signaled during the Thursday meeting that it agreed with Pruitt’s legal concerns.

Current and former State Department officials strongly disagree with Pruitt’s contentions about the legal issues.

The debate over Paris has divided Trump’s team in recent months. While Bannon and Pruitt are mounting a campaign to withdraw, other advisers like Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, as well as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster are said to support staying. Advisers who back remaining have taken a cynical view of Pruitt’s offensive, privately arguing that he’s trying to cloud the debate by raising legal concerns they see as invalid.

But conservatives inside and outside the administration remain shocked that the White House is even considering staying, noting that Trump promised during the campaign to “cancel” the deal.

Trump, for his part, said in a recent interview that he would make a final decision in a couple weeks. Though he hasn’t tipped his hand, he said in the interview that the U.S. is not getting a fair shake, arguing that other polluting nations aren’t forking over enough money to help countries cope with climate change.

A White House spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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