WASHINGTON (AP) — As conservatives revolt over Republican health care legislation, Donald Trump faces a crucial first test of his presidency: Can he translate his bully pulpit and popularity with conservative voters into a legislative win?
For Trump, it is a new arena five rocky weeks into his presidency. Thus far the accomplishments he has notched have been carried out via executive authority or appointments ratified by the Senate, often overshadowed by self-inflicted distraction.
Now the Washington newcomer finds himself in the more complex realm of legislative deal-making, as GOP leaders push forward their long-promised plan to undo former President Barack Obama's health care law and replace it with a conservative blueprint that shrinks the federal role and reduces assistance to help voters buy coverage.
With the plan under attack from conservatives as well as medical groups and the AARP on Wednesday, congressional Republican leaders made clear they will rely on Trump to corral restive lawmakers and bring them in line.
"For a lot of them they maybe haven't felt the inertia that comes with Air Force One landing in their district," Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said Wednesday before his panel met to begin voting on the legislation. "I think when the president of the United Statesm who campaigned on repeal and replace, says this is the repeal and replace bill ... I think the dynamic changes."
Trump has kept an arm's length from legislative maneuvering on Capitol Hill thus far, leading to repeated bouts of confusion about what exactly he supports. Yet with more than 26 million Twitter followers, he can sway GOP lawmakers with a tweet. Before Trump was sworn in, Republicans backed off plans to gut an independent ethics office after he objected over Twitter.
On Tuesday, Republican House members who are part of the GOP vote-counting team met with the president at the White House, with several saying later they were pleasantly surprised by the president's level of engagement on the health bill. He made clear he is fully behind the plan and willing to engage with individual lawmakers to get them on board. Hours after the meeting wrapped up Trump made good on that commitment with a tweet aimed at Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., an outspoken critic of the House health legislation.
"I feel sure that my friend @RandPaul will come along with the new and great health care program because he knows Obamacare is a disaster!" the president wrote.
"He said he's 100 percent behind it, he's going to be very engaged, he's going to dedicate as much time as he can possibly do to it," said Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., who was in Tuesday's meeting with Trump. "He said he's all-in. All-in for President Trump as we can see when he gets passionate about something he gets really behind it."
In his early outreach, Trump was meeting with conservative leaders at the White House on Wednesday and dining with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a onetime GOP presidential rival and conservative luminary, and his wife, Heidi.
Trump's team is deploying three former House conservatives — Vice President Mike Pence, budget chief Mick Mulvaney and Health Secretary Tom Price — to persuade some of the most skeptical members of the GOP caucus, including members of the Republican Study Committee and the Freedom Caucus.
Price, a former Georgia congressman and orthopedic surgeon, was dispatched to the White House briefing room on Tuesday afternoon to make the case for the bill.
Pence met with members of the Freedom Caucus on Tuesday, and he was hitting the airwaves on Wednesday with local television interviews in swing states Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida.
Mulvaney went so far as to invite members of the House Freedom Caucus to join him for a night at the White House bowling lane next week.
Even some holdouts acknowledged that such pressure could make a difference.
"I would be the first to admit that calls from the president will certainly influence members and to suggest otherwise would be to ignore politics," said Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the Freedom Caucus, whose members have been speaking out against the bill. "Whether you fully supported Donald Trump or not, getting a call from President Trump obviously makes a difference."