Trump blames party hardliners for health debacle, as more battles loom

Brian KNOWLTON
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US President Donald Trump, with Vice President Mike Pence (R) speaks from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on March 24, 2017

Donald Trump on Sunday squarely blamed his Republican party's ultra-conservative wing for the most stinging defeat of his young presidency, holding it responsible for the failed attempt to repeal Obamacare in a way that may signal bruising battles ahead over taxes and spending.

In a Twitter message, the US president not only faulted the hardline Freedom Caucus and two other influential conservative groups for the stunning setback, he suggested they had weakened efforts to curb abortions, a touchstone conservative cause.

"Democrats are smiling in D.C. that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club For Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & Ocare!" he tweeted early Sunday, two days after he and Republican leaders canceled a House vote on repealing Obamacare that was headed for failure.

After a day of sober stock-taking and a flurry of behind-the-scenes consultations over lessons learned from the embarrassing setback, Trump appeared to be returning Sunday to his customary bravado.

His frontal attack on the Freedom Caucus and the other groups cast a sharp light on the intraparty tensions that seem sure to flare up as Trump turns now to other key priorities like tax reform and a big infrastructure spending plan.

Analysts say he will have to work with the small but determined Freedom Caucus -- or find a way to work around it, most likely by forging coalitions with Democrats, who for now seem little disposed to cooperate.

- Moving on -

The health care loss was a devastating early setback for Trump that could cast a long shadow over his presidency. The failure to gain the tax savings that the repeal bill would have brought will make it far harder for him to provide the "massive" tax cuts he had promised.

The president, who prides himself on his negotiating abilities, had prominently inserted himself into last-minute talks, traveling to Capitol Hill and inviting some Republican lawmakers to the White House, demanding action.

When the effort collapsed, sparking a blame game between White House aides and congressional leaders, an unusually subdued Trump quickly vowed to move on.

"We will probably start going very, very strongly for the big tax cuts and tax reform," he said. "That will be next."

But the head of the Freedom Caucus, Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, insisted Sunday that progress on health care remained possible.

"This is not the end of the debate," he said on ABC. Likening the process to a football game at halftime, he added: "At the very end of the day, the most valuable player will be President Trump on this, because he will deliver."

Meadows also vowed to work with Trump for "real tax reform."

With every Democrat opposed to Obamacare repeal, and both far-right and moderate Republicans opposing the recent bill for their own reasons, the effort to kill former president Barack Obama's signature health-care plan is widely seen as moribund for now.

But some lawmakers suggested Sunday that progress could yet be achieved if Democrats were brought into the picture.

"The president never called us once about this," top Senate Democrat Charles Schumer said on ABC. Not a single Democrat voted for repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Obamacare's formal name.

"But I would say this," Schumer added. "We Democrats, provided our Republican colleagues drop 'replace' and stop undermining the ACA, are willing to work with our Republican friends... to improve Obamacare. We never said it was perfect."

- Influential groups -

The Club for Growth, one of the groups Trump singled out for blame in the repeal debacle, has a strong anti-tax focus and has long been influential in conservative Washington circles. It reportedly financed a half-million dollar ad campaign urging Republican lawmakers to oppose their party's health bill.

It was an early critic of the Trump candidacy, branding him a "big-government liberal."

The Heritage Foundation is a leading conservative think tank. When Trump was drawing up his list of potential Supreme Court nominees last year, he said he was relying on guidance from Heritage and the Federalist Society, an influential conservative legal group.

By invoking Planned Parenthood -- the country's largest provider of abortion services -- in his attack on the conservative groups, Trump appeared to be trying to mobilize his vocal grassroots base for the battles ahead.

On Friday, before the scheduled vote, Trump had tweeted a warning to his party's right wing: "The irony is that the Freedom Caucus, which is very pro-life and against Planned Parenthood, allows P.P. to continue if they stop this plan!"

The Republican bill would have barred the women's health organization from receiving federal funds in the form of reimbursements for the free contraception it provides for low-income patients.

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