How Schumer kept Dems united on Obamacare

Chuck Schumer fired off a warning at a caucus-wide retreat in January: Senate Republicans will try to pick off Democrats, one by one, to join the GOP effort to dismantle Obamacare.

If that happens, Schumer said in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, Democrats are finished. And so the 48-member caucus must stick together to try to save it.

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With that message, relayed by a source familiar with the episode, the New York Democrat and newly minted minority leader swiftly united an often-squabbling caucus against efforts to repeal Obamacare.

Months later, it helped deliver a major, though perhaps temporary, victory Tuesday when Mitch McConnell’s bid to repeal Obamacare stalled — a cause that had similarly united Republicans for the seven years since the landmark health care bill became law.

Now, as Senate GOP leaders punt a key vote on their health care bill until after the July 4 recess, Schumer faces his next challenge in his first major legislative battle as the top Senate Democrat: keeping his party and grass-roots allies mobilized for at least two more weeks, as Republicans rewrite their plan and hunt for votes.

Schumer also has to protect his moderate members up for reelection in 2018, who already have faced repeated attacks from the National Republican Senatorial Committee over their pledge to shield Obamacare from efforts to unravel it. President Donald Trump has also previewed that playbook, tweeting Tuesday that a “failed, expensive and dangerous ObamaCare” was the Democrats’ legacy. Trump is already trying to blame Democrats for obstructionism for any problems with the health system.

“Complacency is not something that we can countenance. We have to continue letting people know how bad this is,” Schumer told reporters on Tuesday. “Despite the fact that they have an amazing message machine… on this issue, it has sunk through. Only 17 or 16 percent of Americans support Trumpcare. They are really getting the message. We’re gonna keep doing that.”

Liberal activists were not always certain they could count on him to aggressively take on the GOP.

But earlier this year, Schumer quickly worked to ensure all 48 members of the Democratic Caucus — from Joe Manchin of West Virginia to Bernie Sanders of Vermont — would take a firm stance against repealing Obamacare, a position that solidified in January as efforts to dismantle the law ramped up.

“When they saw that I — in no way, shape or form — could vote to hurt every part of my state, every demographic in my state, I think that gave him the [sign] that we’re going to be united on this,” Manchin said.

That included any attempts from Republicans, limited as they were, to quietly reach out to Democrats on potential bipartisan health care talks.

When GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana — who had been shopping around their own Obamacare replacement proposal — asked centrist Democrats including Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana to chat about health care, Schumer gave the moderates the green light to go ahead, as long as they stressed that complete repeal was off the table.

“Whenever we started to do what each of us do, which is try to go solve a problem, he would remind us that there would be a time for that, but first we had to be together and send a message: It’s not OK to unravel the health care system,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, one of Schumer’s closest allies, said. “And he’s been very effective.”

A consummate dealmaker at heart, Schumer has nonetheless embraced a role leading a restive Democratic Party eager to oppose President Donald Trump at essentially every turn.

The minority leader has added Sanders and other liberal upstarts such as Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Brian Schatz of Hawaii to his broader leadership team, and Democratic leadership has a standing meeting with liberal groups such as MoveOn.org, Our Revolution, UltraViolet and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee every other Thursday.

One Senate Democratic aide said of Schumer: “I think he’s realized the value of the activist communities out there.”

“We have a diverse caucus and he’s got just as much enthusiasm among the moderates as he does among the progressives,” Schatz said. “And I think he’s adapted very quickly to the age of Trump and the era of social media. These are difficult times but he’s the right leader for these difficult times.”

Schumer’s relationship with the left wasn’t always as warm as it became in the last weeks of the heated health care fight.

Liberal activists pressed Senate Democrats for a procedural blockade in protest of the GOP’s secretive Obamacare repeal process, but the caucus didn’t ramp up obstruction tactics until after passage of a bipartisan Russia sanctions bill. Another provocative maneuver, to shut down committee hearings, could have disrupted high profile testimonies, particularly in the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Angel Padilla, policy director at the anti-Trump group Indivisible, said activists “were really nervous” as they first urged Democratic senators to ramp up the opposition: “We thought, ‘They’re not going to do it because they’re Democrats and they don’t do this stuff.’”

After Democrats held their first Monday night talk-a-thon savaging the Republican repeal bill last week, however, activists rallied to their side — while constantly nudging for more resistance.

Democratic leaders “are learning to be receptive to where people are,” said Center for American Progress Action Fund campaign director Emily Tisch Sussman. “Understandably, they still have some deference to process, particularly in the Senate versus the House. … So they’re getting there.”

Still, the unity Schumer cultivated helped Democrats more easily exploit the divisions in the Republican Conference, whose members ranged from those who were fretful that dismantling Obamacare would harm their constituents to those who were frustrated that the repeal didn’t go far enough.

Schumer and the Democrats were handed some gifts along the way, including a private comment made by Trump himself that the House version of Obamacare repeal was “mean.” They also set out a goal of defeating the health care bill on a procedural vote to begin debate, rather than filibustering the bill with endless amendments once it got to the floor, as activists initially sought.

The New York Democrat is well aware that heeding the ornery spirit of the liberal grass roots can bring huge energy to Democrats’ push to hamper Trump’s agenda. Now that the GOP has postponed the repeal vote, activists are expecting him to not forget that lesson.

“The moment Democrats announced they were going to start shutting down business as usual in the Senate, health care leapt back onto the front page of newspapers, Republicans started falling off the bill,” MoveOn Washington director Ben Wikler said in an interview. “We are optimistic that Democrats have seen the effects of standing and fighting and are going to keep doing it.”

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, warned that the postponed vote could prove a temporary victory if Republicans regroup after the Fourth of July recess. And he urged the Democratic base to maintain this week’s level of energy and public pressure.

“I just hope that we use this time to wake more Americans up” to the consequences of Obamacare repeal, he said in an interview. “One of the biggest dangers we have right now is complacency, is silence, is people sitting on the sidelines.”

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EU exploring invisible border in Ireland post Brexit

Irish-themed novelty goods are pictured in a souvenir store in Buncrana, Ireland, not far from the border with Northern Ireland | Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

Officials in Brussels and Dublin are working out how the Northern Ireland border could operate once the UK leaves the EU.

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EU officials working on one of the thorniest of Brexit conundrums — how to create a “seamless border” in Ireland — are exploring how regular cross-border traders could be pre-vetted to reduce bureaucracy while allowing some random customs checks away from the frontier itself.

The highest ranking officials on each side — Oliver Robbins for the U.K. and Sabine Weyand for the EU — are personally overseeing negotiations about the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the south, so important is agreement on this question to the overall success of the talks, which began last week.

Both sides recognize the sensitivity of the Irish border and do not want to create a hard frontier with border posts that could become targets for dissident Republican groups.

The economic stakes are also high because trade across the border is worth £43 billion and more than a third of Northern Irish exports go via land to the south. The U.K. says it wants to withdraw from the EU customs union which, unless the two sides agree special arrangements, would insert a barrier to the current frictionless trade between the two countries.

POLITICO has spoken to four officials involved in technical preparations who said that concrete solutions are being worked up that can be fed into the talks.

“We’re trying to protect the single market and [prevent the Irish border becoming] a back door to import and export goods from third countries without any checks,” one of the officials said. “At the same time [we want to avoid] any disruption of all economic operations between the two parts of the island.”

One option is for companies in Northern Ireland to become what is known as an “authorized economic operator” after Brexit, according to a senior Commission official aware of the technical discussions.

Achieving this status allows businesses operating beyond the EU’s borders to enjoy trade benefits as long as they can meet a wide range of criteria based on international standards surrounding health and safety. Any customs duties are paid quarterly, which allows for priority treatment during the customs clearance stage — and crucially no need for checks at the frontier itself.

Regulating goods and vehicles belonging to businesses that are not authorized operators and those carrying goods from countries outside of Europe across the Irish border poses a trickier problem however. For those goods, the EU could use a “risk-assessment approach,” the Commission official said. That would entail random checks on vehicles crossing the border in order to clamp down on goods that do not comply with EU health and safety regulations from entering the zone through the back door. Such vehicle stops and checks could crucially occur a significant distance from the physical border itself though.

Arrangements like this have precedents on the fringes of the EU. There is no hard border between Germany and Switzerland for example but officials carry out random spot checks on freight. Similarly, Norway and Sweden have close cross-border arrangements to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy.

Another official said brainstorming has been underway in Dublin on the possibility of conducting on-site veterinary controls of cattle and sheep going for slaughter to avoid needing paperwork checks at the border. Such processes could be rolled out with relative ease as vets are already a part of local communities in Ireland, the official said. Applying this approach to goods such as raw milk will be harder though because of the lack of inspectors in remote areas.

Though the ideas have yet to be formalized or made it into any official EU position paper, officials said there is widespread accord among the EU27 that Ireland can be treated as a special case in the Brexit talks — a position that was affirmed in the negotiating directives published by the EU. These state “the unique circumstances and challenges on the island of Ireland will require flexible and imaginative solutions.” Prime Minister Theresa May has also said that Britain wants “to avoid a return to a hard border.” The Democratic Unionist Party, which reached an agreement Monday to prop up the Conservative government in Westminster, are also against the return of a hard border.

Last week, Ireland’s new Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said that Brexit talks should refrain from changing the status quo on the Irish border. “Our objective is a very clear one, and it’s a very simple one: that there should not be an economic border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland,” he said arriving in Brussels for an EU leaders’ summit.

Asked about the ideas formulating in Brussels, a spokesperson for the U.K.’s Department for Exiting the European Union said: “We welcome the European Council and Commission’s commitment to work on flexible and imaginative solutions to avoiding a hard border.”

“We are determined to protect the everyday movement of goods across the border, and we absolutely recognize the importance of this to the economy in Northern Ireland,” the spokesperson said.

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Inside the GOP’s health care flop

Senate Republicans had no inkling of what they were walking into on Tuesday afternoon as they filed into the Mike Mansfield room on the Capitol’s second floor.

Mitch McConnell’s 51 colleagues, from his most junior members to his closest lieutenants, fully expected the Senate to vote this week on the Senate GOP’s wounded Obamacare repeal bill. They knew the whip count was far worse than advertised, but were ready for McConnell to either admit defeat or make a furious round of deal-making to try to win their support. They took McConnell at his word that a vote would occur, regardless of the result.

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Then the Kentucky Republican shocked them all as he dispassionately informed them at the top of the meeting that the vote would be delayed, and that he would continue the painful exercise of trying to get 50 of the caucus’s 52 votes for Obamacare repeal.

Never mind that McConnell and his team had previously made clear that they did not believe letting the bill hang out over the July 4 recess would improve the result of the perilous negotiations.

“It’s different from what he said… yesterday afternoon as late as 5:30 p.m.,” said a Republican senator.

Senators left the meeting perplexed at what will come next and people close to McConnell don’t fully comprehend how his strategy will play out, according to interviews with senators, aides and Republican operatives.

Even Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), McConnell’s deputy and perhaps his closest ally, admitted that he was a “little bit” surprised at the decision. Cornyn had said the vote was on just minutes before.

“I understand it and support it. It’s important that we succeed,” Cornyn said of McConnell’s move. “This is more than just about health care, as important as that is. This is about keeping our promises and demonstrating our ability to govern.”

If the bill failed, the GOP’s base could abandon them for not following through on the party’s years-long campaign against Obamacare. It would also be harder for Republicans to pay for a sweeping tax reform plan. President Donald Trump’s agenda could be mortally wounded.

In recent days, McConnell spoke to White House aides, senators, political consultants and his sprawling Washington network built over decades in the Senate.

But he never tipped his hand on what might be coming.

Everyone in the Senate took him at his word that a vote would occur this week, which is why the decision to punt the bill was so surprising. But it’s also true that McConnell has never been the type of leader to put a bill on the floor that he knows will fail.

McConnell made his choice because he still sees a narrow path to success. “He’s not interested in coming back and having a failed vote,” said a person close to McConnell.

It will be fraught with danger while trying to balance out the demands of senators from Medicaid expansion states and hardline conservatives looking to gut Obamacare as much as possible. And his decision to delay the bill also carries great political risk because it draws out the Obamacare fight at least a couple more weeks. But he’s decided it’s a risk worth taking.

The episode was a stunning twist in the GOP’s long-running saga to roll back Obamacare.

Before the House first pulled its bill from the floor back in March, McConnell vowed that the Senate could pass a repeal bill in a week. Then he had the Senate GOP meet nearly every day of the last two months once the House finally sent him a bill in April. Now he’s trying a new tactic.

Behind closed doors Tuesday, McConnell informed the senators of his goal to strike a new deal by Friday or Saturday, with plans to have the Congressional Budget Office analyze that proposal and hold a vote soon after the recess.

CBO Director Keith Hall was also present for the meeting, and GOP senators quickly lay into the man who’s been haunting them with projections of 22 million fewer insured and short-term premium increases, according to people in attendance. It seemed to be a genuine effort by Republicans to discredit the nonpartisan referee so that the GOP’s final healthcare bill isn’t derailed by the CBO.

“CBO could stand for ‘Confusing But Obtuse,’” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) afterward.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked Hall, who was hand-picked by Republicans in 2015, how he could project millions more would be covered by Medicaid expansion in future years, wondering aloud whether the CBO could predict what was essentially a political decision left to individual states and their governors.

“I’m from the biggest potential Medicaid expansion state. And if you think Texas is expanding, you’re wrong,” chimed in Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), according to attendees of the closed-door meeting.

Cruz is one of those senators McConnell now must win over, but he may be easier than most. He’s been working well with McConnell, once his high-profile adversary, and his attack on Hall was aimed at making his colleagues feel better about the GOP leader’s bill.

McConnell and Trump must convince all but two of the following currently-opposed senators to reverse course: Conservatives Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin as well as the more centrist Susan Collins of Maine, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Rob Portman of Ohio and Dean Heller of Nevada, and surprise opponents like Jerry Moran of Kansas.

“There’s several things we’ve put on the table. And at this point there’s not much give,” Capito said. “I don’t know how, or if, we can’t get there.”

“Tinkering isn’t going to work from my perspective. There would have to be a major overhaul of the bill … to win my support,” Collins said.

A few hours before the change in schedule was announced Tuesday, negotiations were really just beginning, as Cruz visited with McConnell privately and Portman met with Vice President Mike Pence at his hideaway.

White House officials said Tuesday morning they were still angling to make deals with individual senators, hoping to deploy the $188 billion they have left over from the CBO score to pour into the bill and cut deals.

But one Republican aide involved in the process said that GOP leaders had not yet engaged in the horse-trading needed to push the bill across the finish line — a key reason McConnell called off the vote early in the week.

“The truth is, we’re not even close. This is not, like, a couple of tweaks,” the aide said.

McConnell has given the White House assurances he will bring the bill to a successful vote, and an anxious Trump has been told by top aides in the Oval Office that he could trust McConnell, according to one person familiar with the conversations.

Trump told aides and McConnell that he wanted to be involved in whipping votes, and two administration officials said he enjoyed doing so in the House.

But McConnell aides and advisers don’t think Trump can help like he could in the House.

“Trump doesn’t bring us any votes. He just doesn’t,” said one person familiar with the majority leader’s thinking.

As the whip count became more dire in recent days, the White House became increasingly concerned about the flailing Republican bill and began to ramp up its efforts and urgency toward what could be Trump’s key domestic achievement. Some, like top congressional lobbyist Marc Short and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, were not as determined to have a vote this week as McConnell initially was, according to people who spoke with them.

Trump began working the phones over the weekend. On Tuesday afternoon he hosted Paul and the two developed what Paul called a “good rapport,” a significant development considering Paul is perhaps the firmest “no” vote against the GOP’s repeal bill right now.

On Tuesday, Trump also invited the entire GOP caucus to the White House to make a personal pitch to a party that by the time of the meeting included at least eight senators who opposed the bill in its current form.

“Obviously the White House must have played some role or otherwise we wouldn’t all be trundling down there,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Still, the particulars of the Senate’s procedures will always be ultimately up to McConnell.

Some saw his delay as a positive sign, considering that the GOP leader could have simply cut bait on the bill. Instead he is willing to expend huge amounts of political capital on a bill that could easily cost the GOP seats in Congress as soon as next year.

“More time gives opportunity,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).

Others weren’t so sure. After all, if the GOP follows McConnell’s new timeline and strikes a deal heading into the recess, GOP senators will have nine days at home dealing with liberal activists, a new CBO score and more critical media coverage.

“Personally,” said Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), “I’d just as soon work through the recess.”

Eliana Johnson and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

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Senate GOP seethes at Trump impulsiveness

Top GOP officials and senators say White House chaos and impulsiveness are crippling efforts to expand the Republican Senate majority in 2018, unraveling long-laid plans and needlessly jeopardizing incumbents.

There’s a widespread sense of exasperation with the president, interviews with nearly two dozen senior Republicans reveal, and deep frustration with an administration they believe doesn’t fully grasp what it will take to preserve the narrow majority or add to it.

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The most recent flash point involves Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who was attacked by a White House-sanctioned outside group after announcing his opposition to the now stalled Obamacare repeal bill. Heller, the most endangered GOP incumbent up for reelection in 2018, was initially targeted with a surprise $1 million digital, TV, and radio assault — an act of political retaliation that stunned both senators and other top GOP officials.

The TV and radio commercials, produced by America First Policies — which is staffed by a number of Trump’s top campaign aides — accused Heller of refusing to keep his “promise” to dismantle Obamacare.

The offensive reflected Trump’s mounting frustration with Capitol Hill Republicans who refuse to advance his stymied legislative agenda and was designed to send a loud message that it’s time to get on board. Yet it infuriated Majority Leader Mitch McConnell himself, who privately fumed that it would make it harder to get Heller’s support for the legislation. Some McConnell allies reached out to the organization directly to express their displeasure and to plead with them to cease the attacks, reasoning that it could badly hurt Heller’s already-challenging re-election bid.

“I share the administration’s frustration on members wavering on repeal but the answer is not to attack the most vulnerable member of the conference,” said Rob Jesmer, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director.

By Tuesday evening, after several senators directly complained to the president today about the anti-Heller ads in a meeting at the White House, the group decided to stop airing the spots. Heller himself brought up the commercials during the meeting, a spokesman for the senator confirmed.

“It was a responsible decision that I’m hopeful leads to a good working relationship going forward,” said Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff.

McConnell has also been stewing about another race: the Alabama Senate primary, which has turned into a personal priority for the majority leader. For weeks, McConnell and top political aides had been asking the Republican National Committee to release coordinated funding to help newly-appointed Sen. Luther Strange, who is trying to fend off a large field of GOP primary opponents in a late summer special election. The NRSC and another McConnell-allied group, Senate Leadership Fund, are already aggressively boosting the Alabama senator.

Yet after weeks of requests, no RNC expenditures have been granted, and Senate Republican strategists began to wonder whether if it had simply been lost in a bureaucratic logjam — or worse, whether the anti-establishment president was reluctant to have the national party wade into a contested primary.

The lack of commitment caused so much consternation that McConnell and Strange brought the matter directly to the White House, asking for the administration to approve of the funding. Strange has talked directly to Trump about it, according to two sources briefed on the matter. McConnell personally lobbied Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a former RNC chief of staff who remains plugged into the committee’s operations.

As of Tuesday morning, however according to an RNC official, the national party still hadn’t given final approval.

In Arizona, where Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a Trump critic, is facing a difficult reelection, Trump-fueled primary worries are intensifying. Prior to the 2016 election, Trump vented openly about Flake’s criticism of him — at one point, backstage before a campaign rally in Arizona, telling top aides animatedly that he wanted to find a Republican opponent to challenge the senator in 2018, according to two people familiar with the exchange. The administration’s anger at Flake has flared anew amid his criticism of the president’s decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey.

Flake has already drawn a Trump-friendly primary opponent in former state Sen. Kelli Ward, and two other allies of the president — Trump 2016 campaign COO Jeff DeWit and former state GOP chair Robert Graham — could also try to unseat him.

Republican officials say they expected some turbulence as they learned to coexist with a president who is, at heart, a political newcomer who is relatively unfamiliar with congressional politics. But even so, the wild unpredictability of the Trump White House has led to considerable consternation and rattled a GOP firmament that views next year’s Senate election landscape as a golden opportunity to expand the majority.

“No committee likes instability and it appears they’re creating instability,” said Rob Collins, who as NRSC executive director during the 2014 cycle helped to lead the successful GOP push to seize control of the upper chamber.

Appearing before a small group of donors and activists recently, NRSC Chairman Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), expressed concern about how the political environment is making it harder to get candidates into races and said the wooing of potential Senate candidates was going slower than expected, said one person who was present for the private gathering.

Potential contenders, he said, were deeply uncertain about whether to enter races given the challenging political conditions and were worried that things could get worse.

An NRSC spokeswoman said “our recruitment efforts are going as planned” and disputed the notion that Gardner had concerns about Trump or the political environment.

“Chairman Gardner, who didn’t get into his Senate race until March of 2014, knows first-hand that candidates do not need to announce early in a cycle to win,” said Katie Martin, the spokeswoman.

Trump has already complicated the GOP’s 2018 candidate recruitment plans, dating back to just before the inauguration when the president nominated Montana Republican Ryan Zinke to the Interior secretary post. McConnell had been pursuing Zinke for months, viewing the congressman as a prized recruit who could defeat Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2018, and had met with him to discuss a possible race. Top party strategists had reviewed polling data suggesting that Zinke would start out the contest in a virtual dead-heat with the incumbent.

When he found out that Trump was about to tap Zinke for the Cabinet post, McConnell launched a late effort to get him to reconsider. He phoned several White House officials and explained to them that Zinke was a top prospect in the Montana race, one whom Senate Republicans had been after for months, said one person familiar with the calls. It didn’t work.

McConnell had been pushing the White House to appoint a pair of red state Democratic incumbents up for reelection in 2018, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, to Cabinet positions – a gambit that would improve the GOP’s odds of seizing their seats.

Yet Trump ignored the advice. While Manchin and Heitkamp were invited to Trump Tower – something they were happy to publicize to their conservative constituents – neither were tapped. In the months since, Manchin, who faces the hurdle of running for reelection in a state that Trump won by over 40 percentage points, has eagerly presented himself as something of a White House ally – a rare Democrat who is willing to work with the president.

The image of Manchin being close to the president — fed by a photo of Manchin seated next to Trump in the White House, and by the tales the senator tells of his phone conversations with the commander-in-chief — have created headaches for the NRSC, which has planned to target the West Virginia seat aggressively. At the committee’s Capitol Hill offices, said one senior Republican, discussion about how to contend with the perception that Manchin is working with the president has come up in meetings.

For Senate Republicans, not everything about the Trump White House has been negative. Among party operatives, there is extensive praise reserved for Vice President Mike Pence, who has emerged as the administration’s de-facto ambassador to Republicans planning for next year’s races.

Pence has begun promoting the party’s Senate contenders. During a stop in West Virginia, Pence asked to take a photo with GOP Rep. Evan Jenkins, who is challenging Manchin, and then posted the picture on his Twitter feed, accompanied by the caption: “Enjoyed seeing Rep. @EvanJenkinsWV while visiting Charleston, WV today. Thanks to his leadership we will Make America Great Again.”

“There is nothing more powerful than a fully engaged and fully functional White House,” said Jesmer. “One that is using its political arm to sell its agenda on TV and online. One that is using the prestige of Air Force One and Air Force Two to garner significant grassroots and earned media. And one that has a coordinated messaging strategy with allies on the Hill, the cabinet and stakeholders.”

For now, the GOP will have to be content with the president’s efforts in Florida, one of the swing states he won in 2016. During a recent visit, Trump began a speech by noting that he wanted the state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, to run for Senate in 2018. It was an unexpected move, given that other Republicans might be interested in seeking the seat and because presidents typically don’t weigh in on primaries at such an early stage in the election cycle.

“I hope he runs for Senate,” he said, before interrupting himself. “I know I’m not supposed to say that.”

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5 changes McConnell can make to get repeal bill on track

Mitch McConnell has little margin for error as he tries to salvage the Senate’s Obamacare repeal effort over the July 4 break.

The majority leader has to craft a compromise that tears down enough of Obamacare to satisfy the party’s conservative wing, while also ensuring the health benefits are generous enough to keep skeptical moderates in line. He can only lose two of the 52 Republican votes, and use Vice President Mike Pence as a tie-breaker.

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Here are the five items on McConnell’s menu:

The Medicaid mess

The Senate health care bill would gut the safety net program, rolling back Obamacare’s expanded coverage and slashing its funding by $772 billion over a decade. And that’s perhaps the main obstacle facing McConnell as he tries to win over a crucial bloc of moderate GOP senators.

Republican leaders may try to soften the blow to Medicaid to win over several holdouts by considering lengthening the phase-out of generous funding for Medicaid expansion and easing the cap on the whole program’s funding. Senate Republicans hailing from expansion states — like vulnerable Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and key swing vote Rob Portman — have pushed for as long as a seven-year phase-down, far longer than the bill’s current three-year track.

McConnell may also float the potential for excluding certain groups from the program’s funding limits, in a bid to maintain coverage for some of the neediest Americans and relieve the financial burden on cash-strapped states.

But changes along those lines would put GOP leaders at risk of losing key conservatives who see Medicaid spending as out of control. Sen. Pat Toomey has led the charge to end the program’s entitlement status, with support from several other senators eager to limit Medicaid’s reach.

“Medicaid was initially set up to help the poor, women, children and the disabled,” Sen. John Barrasso said. “It has been taken in a direction way different than that.”

The battle over Obamacare’s subsidies

McConnell is also likely to weigh making the Senate bill’s tax credits more generous to alleviate concerns that poorer and older people wouldn’t get enough aid to purchase insurance on the individual market.

The current bill scales back those subsidies and cuts off eligibility at 350 percent of the federal poverty line, compared with Obamacare’s 400-percent threshold. The restructuring disproportionately benefits younger and healthier enrollees, the Congressional Budget Office projected Monday, raising concerns that older and poorer patients would be forced to pay significantly more for health care, or go without.

But Republican leaders can easily dial those subsidies back up if they are key to winning over swing votes like Sens. Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski.

“I’m very concerned about the impact on premiums generally, particularly for that very vulnerable group between age 50 and 64,” Collins said.

What may not be so easy: Getting the conservative wing to go along with the bigger tax credits. Sen. Rand Paul — perhaps the most consistent opponent of the bill — has railed against the subsidies as just a perpetuation of Obamacare. Another holdout, Sen. Ron Johnson wants to eliminate that financial aid altogether.

Rolling back Obamacare regulations

Bringing conservatives back into the fold starts with repealing as much of Obamacare as possible — and that means doing more to gut the health law’s regulatory structure.

Paul, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee have pushed to roll back all of the standards governing health insurance plans, including protections barring insurers from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions. And Republican leaders are already halfway there: The Senate bill lets states waive additional Obamacare rules in a bid to further lower premiums.

“I have been very clear from the beginning how to get my vote,” Cruz said.

But conservatives’ remaining demands are extensive, and include adding provisions — such as medical malpractice reform and allowing insurers to sell across state lines — that could disqualify the bill under the Senate’s strict reconciliation rules.

If he eliminates Obamacare’s protections for sick Americans, McConnell also risks inviting the backlash that nearly doomed the House GOP’s repeal bill. That controversy prompted Sen. Bill Cassidy to declare he wouldn’t support any bill that leaves the sick without access to care. And if moderate GOP senators are already worried about whether the bill maintains coverage for the most vulnerable, further gutting Obamacare’s protections likely won’t get them any closer to “yes.”

The Planned Parenthood problem

The easiest tweak Senate Republicans can make to the bill could also be among its most controversial: stripping out a provision that defunds Planned Parenthood for one year.

Collins and Murkowski — who have long been critical of zeroing out the organization’s funding — are drafting an amendment that would preserve the funds. Incorporating that into the Senate’s revised bill could go a long way toward winning those two crucial moderates. It would also come at little tangible economic cost since it has no effect on the rest of the bill.

But it risks upsetting the vast majority of Republican senators who saw this as their chance to finally cut Planned Parenthood’s funding after multiple failed attempts to do so. McConnell would have to take his colleagues’ temperature before he makes any final decision and weigh whether he can endure the additional backlash from influential anti-abortion groups.

Adding enticements, including more money to combat opioid abuse

McConnell has roughly $188 billion to spend on sweeteners to the health care bill, thanks to CBO’s estimate that it would reduce the deficit by far more than the House-passed version of repeal. That gives him room to dole out aid for senators’ pet issues in hopes of winning their votes, and it could go a long way toward addressing some moderates’ concerns.

Boosting funding to fight the opioid epidemic ravaging many states would likely be a strong inducement for holdouts like Ohio’s Portman and West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito.

“This bill will not ensure access to affordable health care in West Virginia, does not do enough to combat the opioid epidemic that is devastating my state, cuts traditional Medicaid too deeply, and harms rural health care providers,” Capito said in a statement laying out her complaints about the legislation.

Republican leaders could also funnel more money into tax credits to reduce the burden of premiums in Alaska’s particularly expensive individual market to lock in Murkowski’s vote, and respond to a range of asks from senators across the spectrum.

Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, said he’s mulling his own set of proposals aimed at shoring up Florida’s Medicaid and individual markets. Of course, sweeteners targeted to specific senators could sow discontent among the rest of the conference, especially those keen on preserving the bill’s deficit savings. That puts further pressure on McConnell to spend his billions wisely.

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