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Washington • President Donald Trump offered a thinly veiled threat against Republicans opposing the Senate GOP health care bill Wednesday as he invited his party's senators to the White House and demanded that they pass the legislation before jetting off for August recess.
"Any senator who votes against starting debate is really telling America that you're fine with Obamacare," Trump said.
While not referring to Sen. Mike Lee of Utah by name, the president noted that he was surprised that two conservative GOP senators Lee and Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas announced earlier this week that they wouldn't vote to proceed on the legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare.
"My friends they really were and are," he said. "They might not be very much longer, but that's OK."
Trump also singled out Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who has been vocal in his concerns with the bill Republican leaders were trying to pass.
"Look, he wants to remain a senator, doesn't he? OK, and I think the people of your state, which I know very well, I think they're going to appreciate what you hopefully will do."
Trump reversed himself from a day earlier, when he said the best option was to let "Obamacare fail." On Wednesday, he said that Congress needs to pass the legislation, and he was ready to sign it.
Lee, who attended the meeting along with Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, is still against the Senate version, his spokesman Conn Carroll said, unless it includes his Consumer Freedom Amendment that would allow health insurers to sell plans exempt from Obamacare regulations as long as they offer at least one plan that is compliant.
The White House has made an all-out effort to win Lee's vote. Vice President Mike Pence called him over the weekend and two top Trump campaign aides met with Lee on Tuesday, followed by a personal call from the president.
Carroll said Lee didn't consider Trump's remarks a threat.
While Trump pushed for a vote, Republican leaders appeared unable to whip up the minimum 50 votes they'd need to pass the bill (Pence could break a tie in favor of passage), while the chamber's Democrats and independents appeared lockstep against repealing Obamacare.
Hatch said Wednesday after the meeting that he thought Trump's words could provide the momentum needed to pass the bill.
"The president was very convincing," Hatch said in a statement. "He spoke about the importance of keeping our promises and not filibustering our own bills. I think he's going to continue to put pressure on my colleagues who can't seem to get to a yes to even hold a debate. We have to get this done, and I think the president is going to try and help [Majority] Leader [Mitch] McConnell move the dial after it's been stuck for a few days."
McConnell, R-Ky., canceled the first two weeks of a monthlong break, saying the Senate needed to pass critical legislation, from health care to expanding the country's debt limit.
The Senate leader's plan as of Tuesday when it was clear votes weren't there to repeal and replace Obamacare said he would hold a vote on a bill that would gut the health care law with a two-year delay that would allow time to pass a replacement.
The Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday that repeal would mean 17 million more uninsured Americans by next year, and 32 million within a decade.