Washington (CNN)The White House was caught off-guard by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s suggestion Thursday that Republicans might need to work with Democrats to prop up Obamacare if they fail to pass repeal and replace legislation.
Two White House officials said Friday they were taken aback by McConnell’s comments, which clashed with President Donald Trump’s statement a week earlier expressing support for a backup proposal favored by hardline conservatives to pass a standalone repeal bill, with a replacement to come later.
One senior White House official said they were “surprised” by McConnell’s comments and said the White House sought assurances from McConnell’s office that the top Senate Republican wasn’t breaking with the current strategy.
“If my side is unable to agree on an adequate replacement, then some kind of action with regard to the private health insurance market must occur,” McConnell told constituents in Glasgow, Kentucky. “No action is not an alternative. We’ve got the insurance markets imploding all over the country, including in this state.”
McConnell’s office sought to assuage the White House’s concerns, insisting as they have publicly that McConnell’s comments were no different from his statement a week earlier when he said “either Republicans will agree and change the status quo, or the markets will continue to collapse and we’ll have to sit down.”
McConnell’s aides told White House aides that McConnell remained committed to passing the current bill and was not proposing an alternate strategy, but rather seeking to ramp up pressure on Republicans to come together and pass the Better Care Reconciliation Act.
Still, McConnell’s comments sparked some concerns in the White House that McConnell’s comments foreshadowed a potential split over a path forward on health care reform should the current legislation continue to lack the GOP support it needs. The comments also came as some Republicans opposed to the bill in its current form became more determined in their opposition after hearing encouragement from their constituents during recess this week — increasing the odds that the bill won’t pass muster.
The senior White House official said the White House is continuing to work with Senate Republicans to tweak the current bill to secure the 50 GOP votes needed, but added that the White House would support a standalone repeal bill to force Democrats to the table to work on a replacement, should the current bill die.
Trump has also previously suggested that he was open to working with Democrats to fix the health care system, but last week endorsed the controversial measure that would repeal Obamacare outright without a replacement at the ready.
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse criticized his fellow Republicans for being willing to compromise with Democrats on the new health care bill, saying at an annual GOP dinner in Story County, Iowa, that doing so would send the signal that Republicans don’t care about keeping their promises.
“If we can’t repeal and replace it at the same time, we repeal the law and stay to work on replacement,” Sasse told the crowd, reiterating his call to work through the congressional August recess, if necessary, to craft a repeal bill. “Instead, Republicans say, ‘If we can’t repeal and replace it once, then maybe we should be working with Democrats.’ Deciding to do that shows keeping your word is not something to take seriously.”
McConnell also drew fire from the conservative Heritage Action policy advocacy group Friday, which said in a statement that “talk of a bipartisan bailout of Obamacare … would embolden Republican moderates” and make it less likely that the current bill would pass.
“If the Republican Party wants to work with Democrats to bail out Obamacare, the results will be catastrophic for the party. For seven years it has pledged it is the party of repeal and now is the time to work toward that goal,” Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham said in a statement.