WASHINGTON (AP) — Less than six weeks after he helped revive a flagging House Republican health care bill and push it to passage, President Donald Trump now says the measure is "mean" and is asking GOP senators to make it more generous.
Trump used those words Tuesday at a closed-door White House lunch with 15 Republican senators, congressional sources say. It was a startling slap at legislation that was shepherded by Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and whose passage the president lobbied for and praised. At a Rose Garden ceremony minutes after the bill's 217-213 House passage on May 4, Trump called it "a great plan."
The president's criticism also came as Senate Republican leaders' attempts to write their own health care package have been slowed by disagreements between their party's conservatives and moderates.
Trump's characterizations could undercut attempts by Senate leaders to assuage conservatives who want restrictions in their chamber's bill, such as cutting the Medicaid health care program for the poor and limiting the services insurers must cover. Moderate GOP senators have been pushing to ease those efforts.
Facing expected unanimous Democratic opposition, Republicans will be unable to pass a Senate bill if just three of the 52 GOP senators vote "no." Alienating any of them could make approving the measure trickier for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who's been hoping for a vote before Congress' July 4 recess.
Trump's comments were described by two GOP congressional sources who received accounts of Tuesday's White House lunch. They spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal a closed-door conversation.
One source said Trump called the House bill "mean, mean, mean" and said, "We need to be more generous, more kind." Another said Trump used a vulgar phrase to describe the House bill and told the senators, "We need to be more generous."
Two other congressional GOP officials confirmed that the general descriptions of Trump's words were accurate.
The sources say the president did not specify what aspects of the bill he was characterizing.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to comment, telling reporters aboard Air Force One Tuesday evening, "We don't comment on rumors or private conversations."
The remarks nevertheless provided ammunition to Democrats who have unanimously opposed the Republican effort to dismantle President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, the Affordable Care Act of 2010.
"Americans won't forget that @HouseGOP passed a "mean" bill to rip healthcare from millions then celebrated @ the WH," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.
In an embarrassing retreat, Ryan had to abruptly cancel a March vote on the House measure after a revolt against it by Republican conservatives and moderates that would have ensured its defeat.
The measure's final version reflected a compromise by conservative leader Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and centrist Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J. They agreed to language letting states drop requirements for higher premiums under Obama's health care law to protect with pre-existing medical conditions, and requiring insurers to cover specific services like maternity care.
At the White House ceremony celebrating House passage of the GOP health care bill, Trump and Ryan praised the legislation as the fulfillment of campaign promises that Trump and GOP congressional candidates had long made to repeal Obama's statute.
"Many of you have been waiting seven years to cast this vote," Ryan said to the scores of Republican House members present. "Many of you are here because you pledged to cast this vote."
Asked to comment on Trump's remarks about the House measure, Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said, "Congressional Republicans, with President Trump's support, are working to repeal and replace this terrible Obamacare law that is harming Americans."
Meadows, who chairs the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said, "I have no knowledge of the president characterizing the health care bill in any other way than to suggest that we need to lower premiums and" protect people with pre-existing conditions.
Just last weekend, Trump used his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., to hold a fundraising event for MacArthur that netted $800,000.
MacArthur's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Trump's description of the bill MacArthur helped resuscitate.
Trump had not publicly criticized the House bill previously. But in a May 28 tweet that raised questions about his intent, he said, "I suggest that we add more dollars to Healthcare and make it the best anywhere. ObamaCare is dead - the Republicans will do much better!"
AP reporters Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Kenneth Thomas and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.