NEW YORK >> Hard-line House Republicans considering voting against the House GOP health bill are bracing for payback from a president who claims his favorite biblical passage is “an eye for an eye.” Many appear ready to risk it.
The scheduled roll call vote for the bill backed by President Donald Trump is a crucial first test of whether Republicans are willing to defy the White House and face the wrath of a president who has bragged about never forgetting a slight. Trump has shown he’s willing to use his megaphone and practiced counter-punch against his allies. But the vote comes as Trump’s poll numbers have slouched and his White House is consumed with damaging distractions.
A group of breakaway Republicans, including several members of the deeply conservative House Freedom Caucus, today remain unbowed, taking comfort in the political safety they feel in their home districts.
Members are well aware they face possible primary threats if they vote against the bill the White House has cast as the only chance to make good on a GOP promise to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health care law.
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told holdout lawmakers today: “You all have to vote for this. We’ve got to do this. I know you don’t like it, but you have to vote for this,” according to several representatives present. The comment came after Trump told a group Tuesday that “many of you will lose your seats in 2018” if Republicans don’t pass a health care bill.
“They know,” said Rep. Steve Stivers, of Ohio, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, of the looming primary threats. Stivers said he’s heard Trump “say things privately” about retaliating against those who oppose the measure. “Every member has their own calculations they have to look at,” he said.
More than two dozen members of the House Freedom Caucus oppose the plan because they say it doesn’t go far enough to undo Obamacare. Some moderate GOP members, meanwhile, were turned off a recent Congressional Budget Office analysis predicting 24 million people would lose coverage in a decade.
Most of the GOP no-voters represent safely Republican seats — some drawn to ensure they stay that way — and whose grip on power would only be threatened by a primary challenger. Among them is Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, who was re-elected in November with 71 percent of the vote, making a stand against Trump a relatively safe bet.
“He has categorized himself as a staunch ideological conservative and can tell voters he was standing up for what he believed in,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. “(The White House) could send a bunch of money to go after him but there’s no reason to think the Republican voters would buy into a fight on this.”
Massie tweeted today that he’d switched his vote from “no” to “hell no.”
— Thomas Massie (@RepThomasMassie) March 22, 2017
Many in the Freedom Caucus also have taken a stand knowing that while Trump is popular in their districts, they are equally so. Rep. Mark Meadows, chair of the caucus, did not face a primary challenger and was re-elected to his seat last year with more than 64 percent of the vote, slightly higher than Trump’s total in his western North Carolina district.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has said the White House has not considered a course of action if the lawmakers defeat the bill, insisting today that Trump is “not there to threaten them, he’s there to explain the political landscape to them.”
But the White House has previewed what could be part of its strategy to seek retribution against those who defy the president: Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have each held rallies this month in deep red Kentucky. The president just raised more than $30 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee and could threaten members’ money. And while Trump’s overall numbers have slipped, he remains popular among Republicans and could hold campaign rallies in the districts of representatives who defied hm.
The political stakes for Trump could not be much higher.
Failure to pass the bill would be a dramatic setback for Republicans core campaign promise. Rebellion among House Republicans also would undercut Trump’s self-promotion as a dealmaker and winner. The defeat would come just days after the FBI investigation confirmed it’s investigating his campaign’s contacts with Russian officials, would further damage a president with an approval rating hovering below 40 percent and weaken his ability to tackle the rest of his agenda.
Trump has long touted his ability at dishing out payback. Whether with his Twitter account or onstage at a rally, Trump lets few slights — real or imagined — go unpunished.
After Sen. Ted Cruz refused to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention, the newly minted Republican nominee used the morning after his acceptance speech to tear into his former rival. Trump read out Sen. Lindsey Graham’s personal cell phone to get back at him. He tore into a Gold Star family after the parents of a slain solider denounced him from the stage at the Democratic National Convention. And he went after a former beauty queen — even falsely claiming she had a sex tape — after she appeared in an ad for Hillary Clinton.
Even after getting elected, Trump has showed little inclination to let bygones be bygones.
He’s warned that he would fund a Super PAC solely dedicated to defeat Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who never endorsed the president, if Kasich ever challenged him — an extraordinary threat from a sitting president. He also interjected himself into a state-level race to oust Kasich’s hand-picked Ohio state party chair.
And last week in Michigan, he turned to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder during a feel-good photo op to note that Snyder never endorsed him.
“I never forget,” Trump said.