KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
And I'm Kelly McEvers. President Trump sent a message to House Republicans tonight. It is now or never. The House postponed a vote today on their bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. At a meeting of House Republicans tonight, a message was delivered from the president. He is done negotiating. And if the House doesn't pass their health care bill tomorrow, he is moving on and leaving Obamacare in place. A short time later, House Speaker Paul Ryan stepped in front of the microphones on Capitol Hill and delivered a short message.
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PAUL RYAN: We have been promising the American people that we will repeal and replace this broken law because it's collapsing, and it's failing families, and tomorrow we're proceeding.
MCEVERS: We are joined now by NPR's Susan Davis, who's been following all of this on Capitol Hill tonight, and NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hello to both of you.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.
MCEVERS: So, Sue, first, it sounds like the House is going to vote on this health care bill tomorrow. How are things looking?
DAVIS: Well, they're going to vote. We know that now for sure. The House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy, just said on the floor a couple moments ago that they're going to come in tomorrow, and they hope to wrap on the bill by tomorrow afternoon. The big question is - we know now they're going to have a vote. The question is, can they pass it? And as we sit here tonight, it is still not clear that House Speaker Paul Ryan has the votes he needs to pass the bill.
MCEVERS: You've been talking to some lawmakers tonight on Capitol Hill. What are they saying? I mean, how much pressure are they feeling to get this done?
DAVIS: So there was this meeting tonight in the basement of the Capitol where that message was delivered. The president wants a vote tomorrow, and if it goes down, you will be blamed for it. This is our chance. So I talked to a lot of members coming out of it who are actually feeling pretty optimistic, that they kind of felt like the energy in the room and that the momentum is moving in their direction. What's interesting - what I asked - and I spoke to one Republican lawmaker, Tom Cole. He's a Republican from Oklahoma. And I asked him, you know, if you do not do this tomorrow, do you get another chance to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act? And this is what he had to say.
TOM COLE: No. I don't think there is another chance. I mean, in politics, there's always another day. But there's a - you know, there are certain critical moments where things come to a head. I think tomorrow is one of those moments and one of those test moments for this conference. I hope we're up to it.
MCEVERS: And what about the Freedom Caucus members? These are the conservatives in the Republican Party who've been so resistant to this bill? What did they have to say?
DAVIS: Well, I spoke to one of those members, Trent Franks. He's a Republican from Arizona. I spoke to him after this meeting. He is still not saying which way he's going to vote on the bill, but he was a little bit more optimistic about it tonight. Those members of the Freedom Caucus do believe that the bill they vote on tomorrow will have some changes in it for what they've been seeking. Specifically, they have been protesting the bill because they say it doesn't - they don't have enough guarantees it's going to lower premiums, what individuals have to pay to get that health care. And so they've - they believe that we have not seen the bill tax, so we don't know exactly what it's going to do yet. But Mr. Franks was suggesting that, yes, they're going to see some concessions on that and potentially something repealing what is known as essential health benefits, which basically will remove requirements on the health services that insurance companies have to cover.
MCEVERS: And, Mara, I want to turn to you now. I mean, the - President Trump has been meeting with lawmakers about this a lot in recent days. What did you make of this threat that he leveled to them tonight, the do it tomorrow or else?
LIASSON: Well, I think he's calling their bluff, and he's calling his own bluff. He's basically saying he's finished negotiating. Let's do this. And sometimes that works. You know, a deadline concentrates the mind like a hanging. And if Republicans feel that walking away and not repealing Obamacare after they've voted so many times over the last seven years to do that, that just might help them heave this over the finish line. Now, it's also true that a lot of these big, first agenda items for new presidents do get passed by one vote, and they do come down to the wire, and they do go onto the floor without having all the votes, and they still make it. That certainly happened with Bill Clinton and with Barack Obama. So this still might pass, but they are staring defeat in the face. And I think a lot of members are trying to figure out what happens politically and practically to the rest of their agenda if they don't pass (unintelligible).
MCEVERS: Right. And I want to put that question to you. I mean, what does happen? What if? If they don't get this passed, it sounds like maybe you think President Trump is OK with this, but what about the rest the Republicans?
LIASSON: Well I don't know - I think Trump owns this now. Trump jumped into this with both feet. He didn't just make this Ryancare. He worked hard. I think if they don't get it, it means he couldn't close the deal, even though he had control of both Houses of Congress. I think it will be a big setback. It will make it harder to get the next thing - tax reform - on the agenda, which is harder politically anyway, but it will also make it hard practically in terms of budget math because if you repeal a lot of the Obamacare tax hikes, you get to have a more friendly baseline to start tax reform with. It just gives you a head of steam.
So on a practical matter, it will make tax reform harder. I think it will be a huge, huge blow. Now, there are conservative activists that I've talked to who've said don't underestimate the value of abandonment. In other words, walking away might be the best thing. And I think one thing that Trump has said over and over again, he said, you know, we just should have let Obamacare implode. We could have blamed Obama, but we decided that was the wrong thing to do. He might go back and try to do that. But I do think at this point he owns this failure if that's what it ends up being.
MCEVERS: Yeah. You know, he wrote this book, "The Art Of The Deal," right? I mean, this is his - this is part of his brand. This is what he brought to Washington.
MCEVERS: I'm the dealmaker. I can make things happen. If he doesn't make this happen, what does that mean?
LIASSON: Oh, I think that's just a huge thing. He said he was the closer. That's what the White House has called him. That's his whole brand. This is going to be a huge blow to his brand. He couldn't even negotiate with his own party. We're not even talking about people on the opposite side here. And I think it tells us a couple things. Number one - real estate negotiations are different than legislation - much harder, a lot more moving parts, a lot more people. Also throughout these negotiations, what we learned about Donald Trump is he doesn't care that much about policy details. He clearly wanted the win and the win to him was getting the vote in the House, you know, getting this bill passed.
LIASSON: He didn't seem to care too much about the promises he'd made as a candidate and as president that everyone should be covered, there should be better health insurance with lower premiums and lower deductibles. He didn't seem to care too much about that because he was very willing to give the Freedom Caucus at least a lot of what it wanted when he was willing to get rid of those essential health benefits, you know, the things that insurers have to put in the plans even though that made it harder for him to get moderates. They were trying to do this balancing act, and they could never pull it off.
MCEVERS: And, Sue, back to you. Paul Ryan gave that very short statement to reporters earlier, like we said. What - how much is at stake for him tonight?
DAVIS: Well, politically, the House speaker both publicly and privately has been very clear that he thinks not doing this could be catastrophic for the Republican Party, that this idea has been the singular unifying policy idea for the Republican Party for the better part of the past 10 years. And they have promised voters they were going to do it, and failing to do it could be explosive, both in terms of inner party drama, primary challenges and weakening them in the general election. So the speaker thinks that this - a failure tomorrow would be a setback for him, yes, but he has said that he believes for the broader Republican Party that this could be very devastating for them.
MCEVERS: OK. We'll see what happens. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis and NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, thanks to both of you.
DAVIS: You bet.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.