What to Know in Washington: Republicans Prepare Obamacare Plans

The Trump administration’s call for a court to overturn Obamacare has Republicans in Congress scrambling to put together a plan to replace the health law and notch some wins on a critical concern among voters.

Republicans in Congress are discussing a replacement for the Affordable Care Act should a court overturn the law, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said. White House officials told Meadows that Congress should lead this effort, just days after telling a New Orleans circuit court to strike down the ACA.

The Justice Department on Monday shifted its position on a Texas case in which it previously sought to have parts of the law declared unconstitutional, declaring in a court filing that it now wants the entire law thrown out. The federal judge hearing the case ruled last year that the law is unconstitutional because of changes Congress made in 2017, a decision that until Monday the Trump administration was challenging.

Republican lawmakers said the threat of an abrupt end to Obamacare and its popular protections for people with pre-existing conditions as well as insurance coverage for millions of Americans has lit a fire under the party. Several said they are now searching for health-care bills, ranging from Obamacare fixes to drug-pricing legislation, they can support to show they can legislate on the issue, Alex Ruoff reports.
Trump said yesterday he asked a group of senators to create a health-care plan to replace Obamacare, Jennifer Epstein reports.

Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) are developing the plan, Trump told reporters. They’ll “come up with something that’s really spectacular,” he said.

“Maybe we’ll even get support in the House from Democrats. But it’s going to be far better than Obamacare,” the president added, calling the law a “disaster.”

“We are winning the Texas lawsuit,” Trump said. “The cost of Obamacare to the people is far too much.”

Photographer: Anthony Lanzilote/Bloomberg
Trump during a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Thursday.

Association Health Plans Blocked: Meanwhile, one of Trump’s health-care initiatives intended to undermine Obamacare suffered a crucial defeat in Washington after a judge ruled the policy violates the ACA.

U.S. District Judge John Bates in Washington yesterday blocked new rules governing so-called association health plans, which would have let businesses and individuals band together to create group health plans that offer cheaper coverage than the ACA — but without some of its protections. Read more from Erik Larson.

One Week of the Mueller Report

Trump told a rally in Michigan last night that he’s been fully vindicated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report and that the investigation was an attempt by “those who lost the election to try and illegally regain power.”

He called the Justice Department’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election a “sinister effort” to undermine his victory. Trump assailed Democrats for the investigation he repeatedly demonized as a “witch hunt” and said the party has to decide whether to “continue defrauding the public with ridiculous bulls—.”

“The Russia hoax is finally dead,” Trump told the cheering crowd in Grand Rapids. “Total exoneration. Complete vindication.”

As Trump and the White House shift into re-election mode, they are propelled by one of the biggest political victories of Trump’s presidency. Attorney General William Barr said on Sunday that Mueller found no collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign. Mueller also didn’t reach a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice.

Barr’s letter didn’t provide full vindication. He quoted Mueller as saying that while his report “does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Yet that hasn’t stopped Trump from claiming a triumph. He tweeted “Complete and Total EXONERATION” on Sunday and called the inquiry “an illegal take down that failed.”

Trump has used Barr’s letter not only to attempt to clear his reputation, but to revive one of his favorite lines of attack on the media, which resonates well with Trump’s base. He tweeted that the findings proves news organizations “truly are the Enemy of the People and the Real Opposition Party!” Read more from Shannon Pettypiece.

After a Week, Battle Lines Are Drawn: Although Mueller didn’t find sufficient evidence to establish that the campaign “conspired or coordinated” with the Russian government, and Barr determined that the findings didn’t warrant an obstruction charge, there may still be plenty in the report that the White House would want to keep secret, and that Democrats would desperately want to see. Even before the special counsel’s investigation ended, the squabble over who’d get access to its contents had already begun. Chris Strohm, Greg Farrell, Shannon Pettypiece, Sahil Kapur and Billy House take a look at where the report stands a week later.

Movers & Shakeups

Haley Leaves Hole at U.N.: Three months after Nikki Haley stepped down as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the Security Council is debating issues central to Trump’s foreign policy agenda without a permanent American envoy there to make his case.

Trump has yet to send his nomination of Ambassador to Canada Kelly Craft to the Senate after former State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert withdrew from consideration in February. That void on Trump’s national security team is in addition to his reliance on an interim Defense Department chief, Pat Shanahan, who’s already the longest-serving acting secretary in the department’s history.

The U.S. seat at the U.N. isn’t empty — career Ambassador Jonathan Cohen is widely praised for filling in as head of the U.S. mission — but the lack of a Senate-confirmed envoy means American allies and rivals know they don’t have a counterpart with direct access to Trump like that of Haley, a former South Carolina governor who demanded Cabinet-level status to take the job. Read more from David Wainer.

Trump’s No. 3 Pick for Justice Department: Jessie Liu, nominated by Trump to be third in command at the Justice Department, has withdrawn her name from consideration for associate attorney general. The AP reported that Liu encountered opposition from Senate Republicans due to her past involvement in a group that opposed Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Read more from Chelsea Mes.

Wells Fargo Head Resigns: Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan gave in to critics and abruptly stepped down yesterday, after the 31-year company veteran struggled to tame a range of scandals, launching the fourth-largest U.S. bank into a hasty search for a successor. Sloan, 58, will be replaced on an interim basis by the firm’s general counsel, C. Allen Parker. The board said it plans to look externally for a permanent replacement. Read more from Hannah Levitt.

Happening on the Hill

Nomination Rules: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plans to force votes next week on a Republican plan to change the Senate’s rules to short-circuit Democrats’ ability to slow nominations from Trump. McConnell announced the rules change on the Senate floor yesterday, setting up a potential vote next week on using the procedural “nuclear option” to change the Senate rules via a simple majority. McConnell has already used the procedure to gut the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees after former Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev .) deployed the so-called nuclear option years ago to eliminate it for all other judicial nominees.

McConnell blamed “unprecedented obstruction” of Trump nominees by Democrats as the reason for the change. Delays have “crippled” the ability of the Trump administration to staff up, McConnell said, including numerous lower-level appointees. Read more from Steven T. Dennis and Laura Litvan.

Disaster Aid: Trump hit back at criticism he hasn’t done enough to help Puerto Rico recover from devastating 2017 hurricanes, accusing the island’s government of mishandling disaster relief funds and praising his administration’s efforts. “Puerto Rico has been taken care of better by Donald Trump than by any living human being,” Trump told reporters yesterday as he departed the White House for the rally in Grand Rapids. “They don’t know how to spend the money” and aren’t doing so “wisely,” he said.

Trump’s comments come just days after he told Republican Senators that Puerto Rico had received too much disaster aid compared with other states and has failed to use it properly. He made the remarks as Republicans and Democrats were negotiating the details of a disaster package. The Senate will vote on its disaster aid package next week. Read more from Jennifer Epstein.

Opportunity Zone Reporting: Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one of the two authors of the original “opportunity zones” legislation, is finalizing a bill to reinstate requirements for the Treasury Department to report to Congress on the effects of the tax breaks, according to a Senate aide. Lawmakers scrapped the provision’s reporting requirements—including investor asset class, zones receiving investment, poverty reduction, and job creation—from the 2017 tax overhaul when the GOP used reconciliation to pass the law by a simple majority vote. Read more from Lydia O’Neal.

Texas Businesses Warn of ‘Discriminatory’ Bills: Amazon, Google, and PepsiCo are among the companies warning Texas lawmakers away from a pair of “discriminatory” bills they say would imperil the state’s economy and place the LGBT community at risk. “We will continue to oppose any unnecessary, discriminatory, and divisive measures that would damage Texas’ reputation and create problems for our employees and their families,” a letter signed by over 50 Texas employers, city chambers of commerce, and tourism and other groups reads. Read more from Paul Stinson.

Politics & Elections

Buttigieg Boomlet: There was no big splash when the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, jumped into the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. But the 37-year-old with a difficult-to-pronounce name has been wading through questions from crowds in early primary states and grabbing every television interview he can, leaning on an earnest manner, a sense of humor and deftness on issues to create a bit of an early Buttigieg boomlet.

Buttigieg still faces the same hurdle as most of the 14 other Democrats currently running for the party’s 2020 nomination: Getting noticed in a pool of candidates that includes several with national name recognition and followings as well as extensive fundraising contacts. Read more from Emma Kinery.

Jill Stein Campaign Required to Repay $175,000: Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein must pay back the U.S. Treasury just over $175,000 of more than $456,000, or more than a third of the federal matching funds her campaign received for the 2016 campaign, the Federal Election Commission ruled. FEC auditors concluded that the 2016 campaign organization received more in federal matching funds than it was entitled to for ballot-access and winding-down costs. Read more from Kenneth P. Doyle.

What Else to Know

Moon to Meet Trump: South Korean President Moon Jae-in will meet Trump next month in a bid to get North Korean nuclear talks back on track after a breakdown in the discussions he helped broker led to a slip in his support rate. Moon, a long-time advocate of reconciliation with North Korea, will meet Trump at the White House on April 11, one of his spokesman said Friday. It will be Moon’s first meeting with Trump since the U.S. president abruptly halted his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Feb. 28, setting back diplomacy to end Pyongyang’s atomic ambitions. Read more from Jihye Lee.

U.S.-China Trade Talks: Chinese and U.S. negotiators have been working line-by-line through the text of an agreement that can be put before Trump and counterpart Xi Jinping to defuse a nearly year-long trade war, according to officials familiar with the matter. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer held meetings in Beijing today partly to ensure there were no discrepancies in the English and Chinese-language versions of the text, and also to balance the number of working visits to each capital, according to the officials, who asked not to be identified because the talks aren’t public. Chinese Vice Premier Liu He is due in Washington next week.

The focus on the joint wording has become a key issue after U.S. officials complained that Chinese versions of the text had walked back or omitted commitments made by negotiators, the officials said. The two sides have very different understandings of certain words, according to one of the officials, who noted that China’s Vice Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen started his career as a translator at the ministry. Read the latest from Jenny Leonard and Jeffrey Black.

Justices Stay Execution of Buddhist: The U.S. Supreme Court stayed the execution of Texas death row inmate Patrick Murphy yesterday unless the state allowed a Buddhist spiritual adviser to accompany Murphy in the death chamber during the execution. Justice Brett Kavanaugh flipped his vote from a similar case last month. Kavanaugh wrote in the Murphy case that the government may not discriminate on the basis of religion. Texas allows Christian or Muslim spiritual advisers in the execution room, but not spiritual advisers of other faiths. Read more from Jordan S. Rubin and Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson.

Trump Reverses on Special Olympics Funding: Trump ordered the White House to reverse his administration’s proposal to cut federal funding for the Special Olympics after the plan drew widespread opposition. “The Special Olympics will be funded,” Trump said. The proposed 2020 budget that the administration sent to Congress earlier this month included a $17.6 million cut to federal funding for the Special Olympics, an organization that helps children and adults with special needs. Read more from Jennifer Epstein.

State Department’s OPEC Concern: State Department Assistant Secretary Francis Fannon has raised questions about Venezuela’s Manuel Quevedo serving as the president of OPEC. Fannon, who runs the Bureau of Energy Resources, expressed serious concerns to OPEC’s secretary-general about a former Maduro regime official continuing to act as the president of an international organization, a senior State Department official said in a statement yesterday. Read more from Nick Wadhams and Tina Davis.
With assistance from Brandon Lee

To contact the reporter on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com

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