Trump aides, Mike Pence talk with Freedom Caucus, GOP over healthcare bill

WASHINGTON, April 3 (Reuters) - Top White House officials met moderate and conservative Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday in an effort to revive a plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Key members of the administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, invited a group of moderate Republicans known as the "Tuesday Group" to the White House. Pence then went to Capitol Hill to meet the Freedom Caucus, a group of House conservatives who last month derailed a healthcare bill backed by President Donald Trump.

The White House would like to see a revised bill come up for a vote as early as week's end, before the House breaks for a spring recess, and the text of the new proposal could be ready some time on Tuesday, lawmakers said.

"It was clear the president would be very happy come Friday to have this passed," said U.S. Representative Chris Collins, a member of the Tuesday Group and a Trump ally.

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"This could move fairly quickly," he said.

Just 10 days ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan was forced to cancel a vote on a bill to replace the 2010 Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, when it was clear he could not deliver the votes needed for it to pass.

The defeat was a big political setback for Trump and fellow Republicans in Congress who were elected on pledges to repeal and replace former Democratic President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law.

Freedom Caucus members said the Republican bill was too similar to Obamacare, while moderate Republicans balked at some of the changes conservatives sought.

Trump attacked Freedom Caucus members on Twitter late last week for their opposition to the bill and threatened to work to defeat them in the 2018 congressional elections.

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At the weekend, he struck a more conciliatory tone, tweeting early on Sunday: "Talks on Repealing and Replacing Obamacare are, and have been, going on, and will continue until such time as a deal is hopefully struck."

After golfing with the president on Sunday, Republican Senator Rand Paul, a sharp critic of the Republicans' previous healthcare bill, also expressed renewed hope the healthcare bill could be revised in a way that picked up support from the conservative and moderate factions of the Republican Party.

Paul told reporters he was "very optimistic that we are getting closer and closer to an agreement repealing Obamacare."


Pence and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus laid out the administration's revised healthcare plan during a 40-minute meeting with Freedom Caucus members, said Congressman Mark Meadows, the leader of the conservative group.

Meadows said he was "intrigued" by the new plan, which would allow states to opt out of some of Obamacare's mandates, possibly by obtaining waivers.

"We're encouraged ... but would certainly need a whole lot more information before we can take any action either in support or in opposition," Meadows told reporters. He expected to see a detailed draft of the proposal within 24 hours, he said.

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In the earlier meeting with the moderate Tuesday Group, White House officials said the new plan would preserve Obamacare's essential health benefits clause, or services and care that insurers must cover, but states could apply for a waiver if they could show it would improve coverage and reduce costs, according to Collins.

Trump aides also discussed directing funds from the $115 billion stability fund for states into high-risk pools for people with pre-existing health conditions to better ensure insurance premiums come down in cost, Collins said.

"It's an acknowledgement that they were chasing votes with the Freedom Caucus and the Far Right and then ended up losing votes with those of us who are typically the most reliable votes," Collins said of the proposal provisions discussed at the meeting. (Reporting by David Morgan; Writing by Eric Beech and Amanda Becker; Editing by Peter Cooney and Paul Tait)