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Ryan promises to keep government open — and makes no promises on health care

With less than a week to pass a new spending bill, negotiations between the White House, Republicans and Democrats are ramping up to avoid a government shutdown (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Washington Post)

House leaders told GOP lawmakers Saturday that they plan to devote their energy in the coming week to keeping the federal government open, conspicuously avoiding an immediate commitment to take up health care despite pledges to do so by conservatives and the White House.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), speaking on a conference call with GOP members Saturday afternoon, offered no specific plan on how or when lawmakers might see details of a new proposal to revise the Affordable Care Act, which White House officials suggested might receive a vote by Wednesday.

Ryan also made clear that his top priority was to pass a stopgap spending bill to keep government open past April 28, an objective that requires Democratic support. “Wherever we land will be a product the president can and will support.” Ryan said, according to a senior GOP aide on the call.

Less clear was whether even a narrow focus on spending would allow Republicans to avoid a showdown with President Trump, whose top aides have in recent days that any spending bill must include funding for a border wall. Such a demand would almost certainly prompt Democrats, whose support is needed to pass the budget bill in the Senate, to vote no.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said leaders in Congress could reach a spending agreement, but only if the White House stays out of the negotiations.

“I want to come up with an agreement,” Schumer said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters. “Our Republican colleagues know that since they control, you know, the House, the Senate and the White House, that a shutdown would fall on their shoulders, and they don’t want it.”

On the flip side, there was no guarantee that Trump would sign a spending plan without funding for the wall, several aides said.

The Ryan call comes as GOP leaders find themselves trapped between proving that they can complete basic tasks of governing such as funding the government, while also meeting the demands of Trump, who is looking for a legislative win ahead of his 100th day in office next Saturday.

Trump and his top aides have been calling on Congress to take dramatic action in the coming week: vote on health care, take up tax reform and demand that Democrats agree to a stopgap spending measure that includes funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ryan’s comments suggested that he and other House Republicans are pushing back on that pressure. He said, for instance, that the House will vote on a health-care bill when Republicans are sure they have the support to pass it, according to several GOP aides on the call — suggesting that he does not believe that to be the case currently, despite renewed negotiations between House conservatives, moderates and the White House.

@PKCapitol: History tells us that Republicans are taking on too much this week — and it isn’t likely to end well

The direction of the border wall fight was less certain. Ryan and other Republican leaders have suggested that it is more important to protect a spending deal with Democrats, who have vowed to oppose spending on the wall. The speaker assured members on the call that the spending talks were still promising and ongoing, but close Trump aides continued to insist in public that the spending bill should include money for the wall.

“I think it goes without saying that the president has been pretty straightforward about his desire and the need for a border wall,” Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly said in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper scheduled to run Sunday morning. “So I would suspect, he’ll do the right thing for sure, but I would suspect he will be insistent on the funding.”

The comment is likely to further threaten bipartisan budget talks, which were jostled after Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, was the first suggested that Trump would demand border wall funding in the upcoming spending bill.

“This president should be allowed to have his highest priorities funded even though the Democrats rightly have a seat at the table because of the Senate rules,” Mulvaney said Friday in an interview with Bloomberg Live. “You cannot expect a president who just won election to give up very easily on his highest priority.”

Mulvaney repeated his expectation that the spending talks will include border spending at several events throughout the week, causing a flurry of confusion among congressional aides who say the spending bill must remain free of major controversies if it is to pass.

Aides on the Hill and inside the White House, who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity, said they believe Trump sees a demand for wall money as the best way to prove that his most controversial proposals can be fulfilled.

The border wall confusion was one of many instances in recent weeks where aides, who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity, said they were receiving mixed messages from the White House. Public statements from the White House have often contradicted private discussions on the spending bill and other issues, the aides said, leaving some to question who in the administration represents Trump’s final position.

Ryan attempted to calm the disorder Saturday by telling members that spending talks were still ongoing and promising. Ryan has vowed for weeks that there will be no government shutdown, and many Republicans and Democrats have said in recent days that negotiations are proceeding apace.

At the same time, Trump has publicly downplayed the significance of achieving a victory in the coming week. He dismissed the symbolism of the 100-day mark — despite his repeated promises on the campaign trail that he would meet many of his goals by that date.

Trump also began walking back the health-care promise after signs emerged that GOP leaders were not prepared to take it up because of the risk that it would anger Democrats.

“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said on Friday. “No particular rush, but we’ll see what happens.”

Then, on Saturday, Trump added to the confusion with a promise to release details of a tax overhaul next week.

“Big TAX REFORM AND TAX REDUCTION will be announced next Wednesday,” he tweeted.

‘Big announcement’ on tax reform unlikely to reveal details, White House official says

The bipartisan budget talks were seen as a rare bright spot in an otherwise acrimonious relationship between Republicans and Democrats in Washington. One particular area of agreement was not to include border-protection funds in the stopgap budget, which, it was agreed, should be debated separately, after government is kept open.

The demand for border funding, as well as the push for a vote on health care, came as a surprise to Democrats, who have been working for more than a month with GOP leaders to craft a bipartisan spending bill that would keep the government open through the end of the fiscal year on September 30.

“Floating the possibility that the House could vote on this amended health care bill next week is irresponsible when the government could shut down on April 29,” said Joseph D. Crowley (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Conference. “The focus must be on keeping the government funded — the most basic legislative responsibility we have.”

On his call, Ryan encouraged members to continue discussing ideas, but he did not open the conversation to questions, leaving members to wait until Wednesday morning before they can weigh in on spending or health care.

Some conservatives had hoped Ryan would use the call to reveal details of a revised health-care plan. Members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus spent the two-week Easter recess working with House GOP moderates, the White House and Ryan’s staff on changes to the health-care bill. Conservatives said Friday that the legislation was nearing completion, but no details have been released.

Damian Paletta contributed to this report.

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