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Mixed messages from Trump complicate Obamacare compromise talks

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President Donald Trump speaks to Sinclair Broadcast Group at the White House on Oct. 17, 2017. (SBG)

President Donald Trump again dismissed a proposed compromise between Senate Democrats and Republicans on a hotly-contested element of the Affordable Care Act Wednesday, less than 24 hours after indicating possible support for it.

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., reached a tentative agreement Tuesday that could help stabilize the health insurance marketplaces created by the ACA, also known as Obamacare, by continuing funding for cost-sharing subsidies to insurers. Trump announced last week that he was halting the payments, which Republicans maintained were unconstitutional because Congress never appropriated them.

Trump has derided the subsidies, which enable insurers to offer coverage to families that could otherwise not afford it, as bailouts. On Twitter Wednesday, he took his firmest stance against Alexander and Murray’s compromise.

“I am supportive of Lamar as a person & also of the process, but I can never support bailing out ins co's who have made a fortune w/ O'Care,” Trump tweeted.

Following Trump’s statement, Alexander tweeted that he will work with the president to make the agreement stronger.

“He and I absolutely agree that CSRs should benefit consumers and not insurance companies,” Alexander said.

Trump had sent mixed messages on the issue in the last two days.

Speaking to Sinclair on Tuesday morning, Trump alleged that insurance companies have profited off of Obamacare and said he does not want to continue giving them taxpayer dollars.

“The insurance companies have absolutely taken advantage of the country and our people and I stopped it by stopping the CSRs, it’s not going to go into their pockets,” he said.

The subsidies are intended to offset the cost of providing coverage to low-income families.

Trump also took credit for Alexander and Murray’s negotiations, which had been in progress for months and included several bipartisan hearings on the subject. The senators had reportedly been close to a deal in September before Republicans opted instead to pursue another repeal-and-replace effort.

While he derided the CSRs as bailouts, Trump still expressed openness to a compromise that prevents the premium increases some experts have predicted if they payments are stopped.

“We’re working with the Democrats on a short term, because of what I did with the CSRs, they came and they want to make a deal,” he claimed. “If I didn’t do that, they wouldn’t be wanting to make a deal at all. But now we’re working with Lamar and Patty and some other people, they’re all working together to see if they can do one-year or two-year, which keeps the premiums down because I want to keep the premiums down.”

At a press conference with the Greek prime minister later in the day after the tentative agreement was announced, the president appeared to signal support for it as a stopgap measure.

"This is a short-term deal because we think that, ultimately, block grants [for the states] are going to be the answer,” he said.

After Trump walked back that support Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., suggested on Twitter that the president does not understand what is in the bill.

“.@POTUS keeps zigging & zagging on health care. 2 wks ago we spoke & agreed he'd encourage Sen Alexander & I'd encourage Sen Murray,” Schumer tweeted.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was not surprised to see the president seemingly contradict himself.

"That's typical,” he said. “One moment the president is for something; 20 minutes later a tweet, he's against it.”

However, Sen. Joe Kennedy, R-La., said the president is entitled to change his mind, and he agrees with what Trump is now saying.

“We're spending $150 billion right now to try to help 7 percent of our people,” he said of the cost of the CSR payments. “They're an important part of our country, but Obamacare's not helping them. And to try to help them we have to screw 93 percent of our people.”

If Trump holds firm in his opposition to the deal, Kennedy suggested the compromise is already dead.

“I think as a practical matter if the president has come out against it, that tells me he wouldn't sign the bill, which tells me it's an academic exercise," he said.

House Republican leaders, some of whom would also need to be on board with the compromise to pass it, have so far rejected it as well.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., admitted Trump's opposition is problematic, but he added that senators will not give up their effort to find consensus.

"It probably endangers it but those of us who believe in moving forward in a bipartisan way are going to continue to fight for that compromise," he said.

Although the president’s support is likely vital to the deal’s survival, lawmakers may not want to count Trump to offer guidance on the path forward.

"I don't think we ought to wait for the president to tell us what to do,” Kennedy said. “I think if the president had firm plans and firm concepts that he strongly believed in that he would want us to hear about, he doesn't appear to be shy, to me, I think we'd have heard about them."