THE MORNING PLUM:

The fate of the GOP health plan appears to hang in the balance, with GOP leaders still struggling to find the votes to pass it in the House. There is widespread disagreement both about the bill and its prospects for passage. But one thing appears to be widely agreed upon: President Trump has now “taken ownership” of this bill.

Yet Trump’s ownership of the GOP plan is not having the desired effect. It doesn’t appear to be moving many Republicans — indeed, GOP critics of it appear to be hardening in their opposition — and a new poll out this morning finds that support for it is dropping.

Trump’s ownership of the bill is being widely praised by some Republicans. “He’s all in,” gushed Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “It was the right thing for the president to take ownership of it,” enthused Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.). Meanwhile, other Republicans report that Trump has made an aggressive pitch to them for the bill, arguing that they will face a voter backlash in 2018 if they don’t deliver on their promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Yesterday morning, we wrote that 17 House Republicans opposed or leaned strongly against the GOP health-care plan that’s scheduled for a vote Thursday. Then President Trump visited Capitol Hill and appeared to threaten GOP lawmakers …
After that visit, the number of Republicans opposing or leaning strongly against the legislation grew to 27, per NBC News’ count — when Trump and GOP leaders can’t afford more than 21 defections.

As the NBC First Read crew observes, it’s “clear that Trump’s arm-twisting hasn’t paid dividends — at least not yet.”

Meanwhile, a new Politico/Morning Consult poll finds that support for the bill has dropped six points among American voters nationwide, and more voters approve of Obamacare than of the GOP replacement:

Since the Congressional Budget Office released its cost estimate of the Obamacare alternative last week, showing steep coverage losses, the legislation’s approval rating has dipped six points, from 46 percent to 40 percent. Obamacare’s approval rating, on the other hand, sits at 46 percent, as it did in February.

Meanwhile, disapproval of the GOP bill has ticked up two points, for a total net swing against the bill of eight points. What’s more, the new Morning Consult poll shows that only 1 in 5 voters thinks it will decrease their health-care costs, while a plurality of 39 percent think they will increase. And note this:

Fifty-three percent of voters said they were less likely to support the legislation when taking into account the CBO estimate that it would lead to 24 million fewer people having health insurance in the next decade. And 59 percent of voters, including almost half of Republicans (49 percent), said they were less likely to support the bill because the CBO projects it could increase average premiums by 15 to 20 percent in its first two years after becoming law.

Majorities tilt against the legislation when told it would result in millions without coverage and would drive up costs, as the Congressional Budget Office has concluded.

It’s true that Trump’s ownership of the bill is not the reason that Republicans and voters are turning on the bill. Rather, the CBO’s scalding assessment of it appears to be a key cause. But this gets to the core of what is really going on here, which is that Trump and GOP leaders supporting the bill are losing the argument over it on the substantive merits, on multiple fronts, and Trump’s mere “salesmanship” may not be enough to change this.

It is hard not to notice a fundamental difference between the arguments being offered by Trump, on the one hand, and the bill’s critics, on the other. Trump’s case for the bill is extremely thin on substance. Trump claims Republicans should support the bill because the ACA is supposedly a disaster, but this argument is bolstered by a whole lot of lies. Trump also claims Republicans should make good on their promises to repeal and replace the ACA and that voters will supposedly punish them if they don’t, neither of which are substantive cases for the GOP bill.

In other words, the policy details do not matter to Trump in the least — he only wants the “win” of repealing former president Barack Obama’s signature achievement, and it is irrelevant that the replacement would not honor his promise of “insurance for everybody.” But the bill’s Republican critics are objecting on substantive grounds. House and Senate conservatives claim it would not lower costs and still leaves too much of the ACA in place. Moderate Senate Republicans, meanwhile, oppose the bill on the grounds that it would roll back too much of the ACA’s coverage expansion, and the American public appears to agree.

It will be challenging for Trump and Republicans to win the argument against these two differing objections simultaneously — if anything, they are losing the argument on both fronts. It turns out that merely chanting the phrases “Obamacare is a disaster” and “the Republican plan would lower costs through more choice and freedom” might not be enough to win the debate, now that it’s focusing so hard on policy specifics.

Now, of course, it is perfectly possible that the bill will pass. But if enough Republicans flip at the last minute, it will be mostly because individual Republicans calculated that sinking the bill could harm the ability of Trump and the GOP to enact other items on their long-term agenda, which of course includes tax cuts and deregulation. It will have little to do with Trump’s salesmanship or with the GOP bill’s specifics, which, if anything, are losing support fast.

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* REPORT: MANAFORT WORKED TO ADVANCE PUTIN’S INTERESTS: The Associated Press scoops:

Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, secretly worked for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago and proposed an ambitious political strategy to undermine anti-Russian opposition across former Soviet republics, The Associated Press has learned. The work appears to contradict assertions by the Trump administration and Manafort himself that he never worked for Russian interests.

Manafort acknowledges he worked for the billionaire but denies it was to advance Russian interests. The AP also reports that Manafort is a leading focus of the probe into possible collusion.

* GOP GOVERNORS BLAST TRUMP BUDGET: The New York Times reports that GOP governors are opposing the Trump budget’s elimination of funding for agencies that fund development in Appalachia and the Delta region, which are Trump-backing regions. As one tax expert notes:

“It just seems like you’re going after places that are so pivotal to what you are arguing you wanted to do for your base. They’re cutting all sorts of infrastructure projects and economic development projects at the same time that the president is still talking about how much of an investment he’s going to put into infrastructure.”

One of the agencies that GOP governors are defending is the one that sends foreign doctors into medically under-served rural counties. It’s almost as if Trump scammed his voters, or something.

* TRUMP TO ‘RIP APART’ EFFORTS TO FIGHT CLIMATE CHANGE: Coral Davenport reports that Trump is set to announce that he will reverse most of Obama’s climate policies, including the Clean Power Plan, which limits carbon emissions from existing power plants:

While the White House is not expected to explicitly say the United States is withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, and people familiar with the White House deliberations say Mr. Trump has not decided whether to do so, the policy reversals would make it virtually impossible to meet the emissions reduction goals set by the Obama administration under the international agreement.

Of course, there will be an epic legal battle to try to stop Trump from reversing the Clean Power Plan, and it could take years. Obviously a great deal is at stake.

A Bloomberg analysis of federal contract data shows that spending related to the environment reached 423 congressional districts in fiscal year 2016 and totaled $5.9 billion. Almost half that spending — 47 percent — went to districts represented by Republicans. That spending distribution could complicate Trump’s efforts to cut environmental spending.

Stephen K. Bannon calls this the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” so it will be interesting to witness the reactions to that of GOP members of Congress who, you know, want the money.

* TRUMP LIES … AND LIES … AND LIES … AND LIES: Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee offer a remarkable rundown and debunking of Trump’s many, many lies about Obamacare, from the exaggerations about premium hikes to the falsehood that it has collapsed.

As they conclude: “Trump is like a broken record of Pinocchios, incessantly repeating false and misleading claims that have been debunked.” In this context, it bears repeating that an enormous majority of Republican voters trust Trump, rather than the news media, to tell them the truth.

* WALL STREET JOURNAL BLASTS TRUMP FOR ENDLESS LYING: The Wall Street Journal has a tough editorial hammering Trump for his nonstop pathological lying:

Now he’s President, and he needs support beyond the Breitbart cheering section that will excuse anything … Two months into his Presidency, Gallup has Mr. Trump’s approval rating at 39 percent. No doubt Mr. Trump considers that fake news, but if he doesn’t show more respect for the truth most Americans may conclude he’s a fake President.

However, the editorial oddly claims that if Trump delivers on the GOP repeal-and-replace bill, that will constitute fulfilling a “promise,” when in fact he vowed “insurance for everybody.”  Still, this shows that Trump’s lying is really working against him at this point, at least in some quarters.