How badly does Donald Trump want his ObamaCare repeal bill to pass? The president let it be known to House leaders in a meeting on Friday that he would support a primary opponent for Republican House members who refused to back the legislation.
“The president will respond as circumstances dictate,” a House Republican said Friday, on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal strategy. “He has unique capacities; I wouldn’t want to be the one he tests them out on.”
If negotiations don’t reach fruition as the bill readies for a floor vote, Republican insiders said, watch Trump’s tweets and travel schedule for signs that he’s dispensed with the carrots and brought out the stick to try to get wayward members on board.
Party insiders say the president at that point could choose to make an example of one or two resistant Republicans to send a message.
Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the Freedom Caucus, the primary group of House Republicans opposed to the healthcare bill, is a possible target. His western North Carolina district voted overwhelmingly for Trump in November, and Meadows has come out in opposition to the bill.
Meadows was still opposed this week but seems to recognize that it would be difficult to win an argument with the president at home.
“The president has a very powerful bully pulpit and a very powerful tweet and so I would never want to take on the president in either of those realms,” he admitted.
Trump so far has deployed the carrot in a bid to persuade the opposition to his side. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a member of the House deputy whip team, said that might be enough.
“I don’t think he has to threaten them. I think he does have to persuade them and make them realize, we fail at this, the first victims are going to be you guys, because you’re the ones up in 2018,” Cole said. “People have to decide, do you really want to hand the president a defeat on his first major initiative? I think that’s full of political consequences for people that do it.”
Trump continues to negotiate with opposition conservatives to improve the bill and gain their support, although the administration and Republican leaders are ruling out many of the major changes critics are demanding.
Trump has held listening sessions with conservative advocacy groups that oppose the bill, and tried publicly to encourage Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to drop his opposition. He’s also dispatching Vice President Mike Pence to Louisville on Saturday for a rally with Gov. Matt Bevin to drum up support.
Trump’s threats should be taken to heart by House conservatives. The president instinctively knows that this primal thrust at the beginning of his presidency will go a long way in defining a successful first term. Failure is not an option.
But conservatives have their own problems. They may be damned if they do and damned if they don’t. While it’s true many of them represent districts that went overwhelmingly for Trump, those same voters might be open to a primary opponent who claims the member went back on his or her word and failed to repeal ObamaCare.
There’s a reason that many of these same conservatives were calling the bill “ObamaCare lite.” While many of the more odious elements of ObamaCare have been removed, enough of the former president’s signature legislation remains that a primary opponent could claim that voters were betrayed.
So, in the end, it may come down to whether conservatives fear Trump more than they fear being accused of voting for more of the same.