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Trumponomics Daily—Monday, February 27

Congressional Republicans return to work in Washington today after a bruising weeklong recess back home that brought many face-to-face with angry, angsty constituents. Voters who packed raucous town-hall meetings voiced concerns on a variety of issues, but the most common source of agita was the GOP’s push to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. This is how the worm turns: Popular opposition to the law helped Republicans begin retaking power on Capitol Hill six years ago; now in place but under threat, the law’s popularity is rising, posing arguably the stiffest and most consequential challenge to the Trump administration’s legislative agenda. With deep divisions among their members over both the process and policy for replacing the ACA, Republican leaders look poised to make the legislative equivalent of a blind leap as early as this week. They’re going to push a repeal measure forward on the hope their rank-and-file will fall in line rather than derail one of the party’s organizing pledges to its own voters.

Where is President Trump in all this? It isn’t clear. The White House so far hasn’t involved itself in trying to forge consensus among Hill Republicans — perhaps because senior administration aides are divided themselves. Trump continues to speak in public as if he’ll present his own replacement plan imminently. On Sunday night, he told 46 governors, gathered at the White House for an annual dinner, that “we have something that’s going to really be excellent.” And he indicated he’d preview it in his speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, his first primetime presidential address: “We’re going to be speaking very specifically about a very complicated subject,” he said.

But as recently as Friday, the Trump team appeared stuck at square one. In a 45-minute huddle on the subject with Ohio Gov. John Kasich — a onetime rival for the Republican nomination who’s embraced Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and pledged to defend it — Trump reportedly had to be reminded that House Republicans advocated a more fundamental overhaul of the law. The president said he preferred Kasich’s approach. Of the meeting, the Ohio governor afterward told reporters, “It takes time, so you have to explain it, and explain it again.”

Amid the intraparty disarray, at least one point of bipartisan agreement has emerged. Two former House speakers now say Republicans won’t deliver on the wholesale repeal of the law they promised. “They do not have the votes,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said in a Sunday interview with ABC, echoing the assessment of former Speaker John Boehner, who told a health conference last week that a full repeal and replace is “not what’s going to happen.” Instead, Boehner said, “they’re basically going to fix the flaws and put a more conservative box around it.” Considering the challenges, that may be the GOP’s least worst option: Try to manage their base’s disappointment at accepting a fig leaf’s worth of reform in order to move on to more promising initiatives, like tax reform and infrastructure spending.

Tory Newmyer
@torynewmyer
tory_newmyer@fortune.com

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