WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate's top Democrat accused President Donald Trump on Tuesday of childish behavior by threatening to halt federal payments that help millions afford health coverage, saying such a move would impose a "Trump premium tax" by forcing consumers' insurance costs upward.
The criticism by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., came after repeated threats by Trump to halt the expenditures, which Trump and other Republicans call bailouts.
It also came as the No. 2 Senate Republican leader seemed to suggest that the two parties should try working together on health care.
Citing the Senate's "fragile majorities," Texas Sen. John Cornyn said "We are forced to work together to try solve these problems, and I think frankly bipartisan solutions tend to be more durable."
Cornyn didn't specify what issues the two sides could address together. But his comments followed last week's crumpling of the Senate Republican effort to repeal and replace President Barack Obama's health care law.
Along those lines, Senate GOP health committee chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee discussed health care Tuesday at a private meeting with the panel's top Democrat, Patty Murray of Washington.
Attention has been focused on the White House, where Trump has repeatedly threatened to cut off federal disbursements insurers use to lower out-of-pocket costs for low- and moderate income consumers buying individual policies. The payments total $7 billion this year and are helping around 7 million people afford coverage.
Last week, Trump tweeted that if the Senate didn't approve health care legislation, "BAILOUTS for Insurance Companies" would end "very soon!"
"His only stated reason is petty, is childish," Schumer said Tuesday. He added, "You don't hurt innocent people, Mr. President, when you lose politically. That is not presidential, that is not frankly what an adult does."
Obama's statute requires that insurers reduce costs for many customers. But a federal court has blocked the federal reimbursements to insurers, saying the funds have yet to be properly authorized by Congress. Trump and Obama before him have continued the payments temporarily.
The payments to insurers are backed by Democrats and some Republicans because many experts say that even the threat of cutting them off is already prompting insurers to raise prices and consider abandoning some markets. Kristine Grow, spokeswoman for the insurance industry group America's Health Insurance Plans, said halting the federal payments would boost premiums for people buying individual policies by 20 percent.
Schumer said by blocking the money, the president would "impose a Trump premium tax of 20 percent higher premiums on the American people next year."
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had his chamber considering nominations Tuesday for a second consecutive day and didn't even mention his party's health care flop in his day's opening remarks.
On Monday, several top Republicans said that at least for now, they saw no clear route to the 50 votes they'd need to get something — anything — refashioning the nation's health care system through the Senate.
Their drive to tear down Obama's law crashed with three disastrous Senate votes last week. Their mood didn't improve after a weekend of tweets by Trump saying they "look like fools" and White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney using TV appearances to say they should continue voting.
Mulvaney has "got a big job, he ought to do that job and let us do our jobs," Cornyn said. He also said of the former House member, "I don't think he's got much experience in the Senate, as I recall."
"It's time to move onto something else, come back to health care when we've had more time to get beyond the moment we're in," said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, another member of the GOP leadership. Asked about threats by conservative groups to attack GOP lawmakers who abandon the fight, Blunt said, "Lots of threats."
While the leaders stopped short of saying they were surrendering on an issue that's guided the party for seven years, their remarks underscored that Republicans have hit a wall when it comes to resolving internal battles over what their stance should be.
Last week, Republican defections led the Senate to decisively reject one proposal to simply erase much of Obama's statute. A second amendment was defeated that would have scrapped it and substituted relaxed coverage rules for insurers, less generous tax subsidies for consumers and Medicaid cuts.
Finally, a bare-bones plan by McConnell rolling back a few pieces of Obama's law failed in a nail-biting 51-49 roll call. Three GOP senators joined all Democrats in rejecting McConnell's proposal, capped by a thumbs down by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.