PHILADELPHIA — Republican members of Congress came here in search of brotherly love and a firm plan for the months ahead. They will leave with big questions about how to move forward on major planks of their agenda.
“Now we have to deliver,” President Trump told GOP lawmakers Thursday, addressing them directly for the first time since his inauguration. “This Congress is going to be the busiest Congress we’ve had in decades, maybe ever. . . . Enough all talk, no action.”
But for scores of rank-and-file lawmakers looking for clarity, Trump’s 25-minute address did not contain the specifics they were seeking.
The health reforms known as Obamacare are a “disaster,” the president said, without detailing how to replace them, despite saying in a recent interview with The Washington Post that it was “very much formulated down to the final strokes.”
Trump spent one sentence on a tax reform bill that he said would help deliver on another key promise — a Mexican border wall, sparking confusion about what exactly he meant. And Trump dwelled on trade protectionism, a concept with limited appeal to the free-market conservatives that formed a large part of his audience.
GOP lawmakers spent Wednesday and Thursday inside a closed-off downtown hotel here, listening to their leaders sketch out plans for the coming months, laid out in charts and bullet points.
But they looked to Trump and Vice President Pence, who addressed them separately Thursday, to flesh out their own proposals and give them some road map for a way forward. They hoped to leave on the same page when it came to the GOP agenda, shifting the focus to policy after less than a week of Trump’s presidency defined by his unpredictable outbursts.
Lawmakers queried Pence about some of the issues on which Trump has tweeted in recent days, with some conservatives empathizing with the president’s concerns about alleged voter fraud in the election and whether intelligence officials were seeking to undermine Trump.
Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) asked Pence during the private session whether the White House would have lawmakers’ backs and support them in their home districts as they pursue their agenda.
“Short answer,” Pence said, according to two people in the room: “You bet.”
Republican leaders acknowledged that their ambitious legislative agenda will now unfold over a course of many months, not weeks, as some Republicans — including Trump — had previously touted.
The timeline presented by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) extends beyond the traditional 100-day window for a new administration’s top priorities.
“We have ambitious goals and ambitious timelines,” Ryan told reporters. “Our goal is to get these laws done in 2017.”
In the case of repealing and replacing Obamacare, leaders appear to be looking far past the initial window that they originally targeted. Ryan and McConnell now expect to put legislation repealing and partially replacing the law onto the House floor by the end of March.
Ryan defended the delayed timeline, saying the scale of the GOP agenda, as well as the need for the Senate to spend scarce floor time on Trump’s nominations, meant taking a longer view: “We are trying to fix people’s problems in this country. It’s going to take more than simply 100 days.”
Many lawmakers looked at a Thursday morning session on health care as a key opportunity for leaders to offer more details about their plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. But those leaders appeared to have only a few new details on offer.
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), the Ways and Means Committee chairman who will have jurisdiction over health care, said he was pursuing the concept of a “health-care backpack” that would include age-adjusted refundable tax credits, health savings accounts and access to electronic health records. All of those concepts were laid out in a House GOP blueprint issued last year.
Key elements, such as how to preserve the viability of the individual insurance market while also requiring insurers to cover those with preexisting conditions, were not addressed in detail, several lawmakers present said.
“No decisions today . . . but very positive conversations,” Brady told reporters.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that members now “understand the movement, the timing and what’s going forward” on health care.
He described an action plan consisting of three “buckets” — a fast-track “reconciliation” bill that Republicans can pass without Democratic cooperation but is limited in scope under congressional rules; a series of executive actions by the Trump administration to restructure insurance markets; and a series of traditional bills to replace the ACA that will need to gain some Democratic support to be implemented.
“All three of these things move at the same time,” McCarthy said.
Under pressure from constituents, rank-and-file Republicans have expressed the desire for more clarity on how the law, which has expanded coverage to roughly 20 million Americans, will be replaced.
“I think really the only thing new that I learned that hasn’t been talked about previously is the expectation of a House floor vote in March,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in an interview that House leaders are expecting to include significant parts of a replacement plan in legislation slated for action by March.
That could include a system of refundable tax credits, state “high-risk pools” that would subsidize coverage for the sickest Americans and tax-free health savings accounts. Other parts of the GOP plan — such as federal mandates on insurance coverage requirements and provisions for selling policies across state lines — would have to wait because of budget rules.
Several GOP leaders acknowledged uncertainty about the replacement plans, but said that they could not afford to change their plans based on Democratic criticism.
“Those who think we’re going to suddenly appear with a 2,000-page replacement bill are mistaken,” Walden said.
Intraparty tensions also surfaced on other matters — such as funding the Mexican border wall, a project that leaders told rank-and-file lawmakers could cost as much as $15 billion.
Ryan brushed off several questions about whether Republicans would offset the cost of the wall with spending cuts elsewhere or new revenue. Many GOP lawmakers have refused to support previous bills that did not offset federal spending but instead added to the budget deficit.
“We’re going to wait and see from the administration to see what their supplemental [spending bill] looks like,” Ryan said. “I’m not going to get ahead of a policy and a bill that has not been written yet.”