Donald Trump suffered a massive political defeat on Friday after opposition inside his own party forced Republican leaders to pull a White House-backed healthcare reform bill, casting serious doubt on the president’s ability to deliver on other priorities.
The withdrawal signalled the failure of Mr Trump’s exhaustive last-minute efforts to cajole lawmakers, raising questions about whether he could unify Republicans behind his pro-growth legislative goals of tax reform and infrastructure spending.
The defeat marked the end of a tough week for Mr Trump. On Monday James Comey, FBI director, confirmed that the agency was probing ties between Trump campaign officials and the Kremlin. Friday’s outcome also cast doubt on Mr Trump’s bombastic claims during the campaign that he was a consummate dealmaker.
The move to withdraw the healthcare bill — for the second time in 24 hours — came after it emerged that Mr Trump had not overcome opposition from hardline conservatives and some moderates.
Mr Trump and Paul Ryan, speaker of the House, indicated that Republicans would shift their attention to overhauling the tax code, which has been a bigger priority for corporate America but is no less complicated than healthcare.
Trent Lott, a former Mississippi senator who served both as the Republican whip in the House and Senate, said the outcome was “a blow to governing”. He said the White House and GOP leadership erred by focusing first on healthcare reform.
“The number one thing that people care about is growing the economy and jobs,” said Mr Lott. “Healthcare doesn’t do that.”
After the defeat, Mr Trump said he would leave the teetering Obamacare system to “explode” and wait for Democrats to come to the White House to strike a bipartisan deal to reform the healthcare system.
“It’s imploding, and soon will explode, and it’s not going to be pretty,” Mr Trump said. “So the Democrats don’t want to see that. They are going to reach out when they’re ready, and whenever they’re ready we’re ready.”
Leaving Obamacare untouched is bad news for Americans who have complained about soaring insurance premiums as insurers abandon more and more regional markets. But it is good news for people who had been at risk of losing their coverage under the Republican plan.
Mr Trump said he was 10-15 votes short of the majority needed to pass the bill, but declined to criticise Republicans. Instead he sought to blame Democrats, even though his party has enough lawmakers to pass legislation if it stays united.
Chuck Grassley, a Republican senator from Iowa, said the failure underscored that Republicans needed to work with Democrats on big legislation.
“Lessons learned fr Obamacare failure and House withdrawal of Obamacare repeal:::major social policy change in US must be bipartisan,” he tweeted on Friday.
Mr Ryan had a more humble tone than Mr Trump. “Moving from an opposition party into a governing party comes with growing pains, and we’re feeling those growing pains today,” he said. “I will not sugarcoat this. This is a disappointing day for us.”
Mr Ryan told Americans that “we’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future”, an embarrassing admission for a party that made repealing Barack Obama’s healthcare a central campaign promise in last year’s elections.
Mr Trump had warned Republicans that not backing the legislation would mean that they would face defeat in next year’s congressional elections.
The failure was a setback for companies and stock market investors who had been buoyed by expectations that Republicans’ unified control of Congress and the White House would enable a surge of pro-business policymaking. US stocks whipsawed, closing slightly down to mark their worst week since November’s election.
“Yes, this does make tax reform more difficult, but it does not in any way make it impossible,” Mr Ryan said.
Democrats have relished the disarray among Republicans, noting they have struggled to agree on a plan despite campaigning to repeal Obamacare over four straight elections and voting more than 50 times to do so when Mr Obama was in office.
Hillary Clinton tweeted on Friday: “Today was a victory for all Americans . . . But this fight isn’t over yet.”
American voters disapprove of the Republican plan to replace Obamacare by 56-17 per cent, with 26 per cent undecided, according to a Quinnipiac University national poll released on Thursday. Just 41 per cent of Republicans support the party’s plan.
Before the vote was cancelled on Friday, Steven Mnuchin, Treasury secretary, denied that the healthcare overhaul was proving to be a disaster, saying “if it passes today it won’t be a debacle” and expressing optimism that it would go through.
He also defended the administration’s decision to tackle healthcare before tax reform, saying the past two months had been needed to work out the details of its tax plans. He reiterated his previous goal of achieving changes to personal and corporate income tax by August, while also describing that target as “optimistic” and saying if it slipped, the changes would be done by the autumn.
In an interview with Axios, Mr Mnuchin said comprehensive tax reform would be “a lot simpler” than healthcare changes — a view that surprised some analysts, given that the US has not achieved a major tax reform package since the 1980s.
Mr Mnuchin’s bullish claim that a bill can pass Congress overhauling both corporate and personal taxes by the summer recess has been met with scepticism by many lobbyists. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has suggested it will take longer to get the reforms through.