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House Democratic leaders urge focus on health care in wake of Mueller findings

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/26/2019 John Wagner, Mike DeBonis, Rachael Bade
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House Democratic leaders urged colleagues Tuesday to focus on health care and other issues of greater concern to voters following the completion of the special counsel’s report, even as some members argued they need to do more to hold President Trump accountable.

Many Democrats appeared eager to pivot back to health care, an issue that cut their way during last year’s midterm elections, after a summary of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report suggested it was far less damaging to Trump than many had expected.

Democrats planned to roll out new health-care legislation Tuesday afternoon and saw an opportunity to capi­tal­ize politically from a new legal filing by the Justice Department late Monday that said the Trump administration backs a full invalidation of the Affordable Care Act.

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“This is actually an opportunity for us to speak to the American people with clarity: They say one thing, and they do another,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said of Republicans, adding that the new Democratic plan would “stop the sabotage” of former president Barack Obama’s signature health-care law. 

House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said Sunday’s release of the summary of Mueller’s findings has forced Democrats to refocus on their legislative agenda.

“That’s always been our priority, but I think now everybody feels it’s much more important that we show the American people that that’s what we’re doing rather than talking about it,” he said.

The summary of Mueller’s report released by Attorney General William P. Barr cleared Trump of coordination with Russia during the 2016 presidential election while offering no conclusion on whether the president sought to obstruct justice during the investigation. Barr said he determined there was not sufficient evidence to bring an obstruction charge.

Nancy Pelosi standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi walks from a Democratic caucus meeting after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III found no evidence of collusion between President Trump’s campaign and Russia in the 2016 election. © Joshua Roberts/Reuters House Speaker Nancy Pelosi walks from a Democratic caucus meeting after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III found no evidence of collusion between President Trump’s campaign and Russia in the 2016 election.

“I believe that the Mueller report has been done,” House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said during an interview with CNN on Tuesday morning. “That’s a chapter that’s closed, and I think that last night, this administration opened a new chapter when it moved to completely invalidate the Affordable Care Act, and that to me is the number one thing on people’s minds.”

The Justice Department argued in a filing with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, where a case on the Affordable Care Act is pending, that the entire law should be struck down. Previously the department had argued that a penalty for not buying insurance was legally distinct from other provisions of the law, which could still stand.

Tuesday afternoon, as he headed to Capitol Hill for a meeting with Senate Republicans, Trump asserted that his party would gain the upper hand on health care.

“The Republican Party will become ‘The Party of Healthcare!’ ” he said in a tweet that provided no elaboration about policy specifics.

Trump repeated that assertion upon arriving and said he was pleased with Mueller’s report.

“The Mueller report was great. It could not have been better,” Trump told reporters at the Capitol.

During a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday morning, House leaders argued that their focus needs to be on health care and other legislative agenda items. They were met with resistance from Rep. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), who argued Democrats need to continue investigating Trump — but support for her view seemed limited.

On Monday night, Tlaib started circulating a letter asking for co-sponsors for a resolution “to inquire whether President Trump committed impeachable offenses” on a range of issues, not only those included in the scope of the Mueller report.

Even some of the more liberal members of the caucus sounded skeptical about moving forward with impeachment, however.

“We’re taking a look at it but you know every member has to pursue what they see as right and what their district wants,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) told reporters. “I think what’s tough is impeachment in principle is something that I openly support, but it’s also just the reality of having the votes in the Senate to pursue that, and so that’s something that we have to take into consideration.”

Even House Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who has supported impeachment, as well as investigations of the president’s business and charity foundation, downplayed impeachment Tuesday morning.

“It’s only a few us of who have talked about impeachment,” she said. “It’s never been a caucus [priority].”

Asked if she supported impeachment now, Waters hesitated: “I’m going to wait until we get this full report.”

During the closed-door meeting, several Democratic leaders — including House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) — said the party needs to focus on its legislative agenda.

Besides health care, other issues discussed included a paycheck fairness bill and plans to address farmers suffering because of flooding in the Midwest.

Jeffries later told reporters health care continues to be a defining issue, as it was during the 2018 midterm elections.

“The Trump Justice Department is once again launching an assault on health care in the United States of America,” he said. “Our legislation will expand access to health-care coverage while at the same time the Trump Justice Department . . . tries to destroy health care for millions of Americans,” he said. “You can’t make this up!”

The same message was coming from the other side of the Capitol. Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) acknowledged that if the Mueller report had been bad for Trump, Democrats “might have said a few different things here or there.” But Schumer insisted that Democrats have always believed issues such as health care were more important than whatever happened in the Russia investigation.

“In the 2018 elections, I don’t know of a single House Democrat who did a commercial on the investigation,” he said.

Still, Hoyer said the House Democrats would continue to conduct oversight of the Trump administration and that he didn’t see focusing on policy as “a pivot.”

“We have been in a place for a long time where we said impeachment was a distraction, and we are not pursuing impeachment,” he said, adding that the main focus would continue to be the legislative agenda.

“We are focused on that,” Hoyer said. “We are focused on that today, and we’ll be focused on that tomorrow.”

john.wagner@washpost.com

mike.debonis@washpost.com

rachael.bade@washpost.com

Colby Itkowitz and Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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