By James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In the end, the Closer couldn’t close the deal.
For President Donald Trump, the collapse on Friday of his first legislative priority, a healthcare reform bill, was an embarrassing loss of face after he and his administration insisted up until the time of the vote by the U.S. House of Representatives that there was enough Republican support.
It brings into question the neophyte president’s ability to move big-ticket legislation through Congress. And for a celebrity businessman who brands himself a deal-maker and fixer, it casts doubt over his ability to deliver on his bold "drain-the-swamp" promises to shake up Washington.
The White House wants to advance, among other things, tax reform and a massive infrastructure package this year, but now it must address whether a change of approach is needed and whether congressional allies such as House Speaker Paul Ryan can be counted on to deliver.
"This is the most consequential day of Trump's presidency and it's not just a failure, it's a stunning failure,” Charlie Sykes, an influential Wisconsin Republican political commentator and frequent Trump critic, said on Twitter.
Trump appeared to chalk up the loss in part to his own inexperience after House leaders pulled their bill to repeal and replace Obamacare following defections by both moderate and far-right Republican members who were unmoved by Trump's ultimatum to vote for the plan or live with the current system.
“We learned a lot about loyalty. We learned a lot about the vote-getting process,” Trump said after the bill was withdrawn, adding that he would move forward with other priorities.
It was yet another setback for an administration barely two months in office that has already seen its national security adviser resign, had its immigration restrictions struck down in courts, and faces a barrage of questions about the Trump campaign's ties to Russia.
Trump’s hallmark salesmanship seemed to abandon him this week. Although he furiously courted the hard-line conservatives opposed to the reform bill, they largely refused to yield, and in the process he alienated moderates who initially supported the bill.
The president then switched tactics and gave up trying to bring the conservative opponents into the fold, instead delivering an ultimatum that all Republicans needed to back the bill. That did not work either.
Trump also failed to persuade the American public that the bill was an improvement over the one it would have repealed and replaced: the Affordable Care Act - the signature domestic achievement of former Democratic President Barack Obama. Polls showed the replacement bill to be deeply unpopular, and conservative Republicans complained that their offices were being deluged by calls from constituents opposing it.
“This demonstrates that campaigning and legislating are two different things,” said Jim Manley, once a top aide to former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Representative Joe Barton of Texas blamed the failure on Republicans who control the White House, Senate and the House still learning how to govern after eight years of Obama.
"Sometimes you’re playing fantasy football and sometimes you’re in the real game,” Barton told Reuters.
Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida called it “a big blow" for the Republican agenda.
Trump’s efforts to engage the bill’s opponents at times seemed to muddy the process further, as he largely cut Ryan out of negotiations. (Ryan didn't seem to mind, calling Trump a "great closer.")
But even as Trump offered concessions, conservatives did not budge and moderates were angered.
Stuart Diamond, a professor who teaches negotiation at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, said Trump’s strong-arm tactics backfired.
“Threats don't work in general,” he said. “They cause damage to relationships. They definitely don't work in a situation with a lot of different stakeholders, where the power is distributed.”
ESCAPING A LOOMING DISASTER
After the bill was revised along Trump’s specifications, the Congressional Budget Office, which analyzes the financial impact of proposed legislation, determined that the bill would deprive 24 million Americans of health insurance over the next decade and slice about $150 billion off the budget deficit.
The CBO said the bill would not affect the number of uninsured but it would reduce the budget deficit significantly less than the original bill, troubling fiscal hawks. Even as Trump and the White House pushed harder, opposition to the bill among the rank and file rose.
Representative Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican who is also a small-business owner, said Trump was still getting used to governing. “There are parallels between government and business, but they are not exactly the same.”
The lesson from the debacle, said John Feehery, a Republican strategist who was an aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, is that the White House needs to take a firmer hand in crafting legislative strategy. On healthcare, Trump largely deferred to Ryan’s office, which drafted the bill in secret, sowing mistrust among conservatives.
Congress now faces arguably an even tougher legislative reform: overhauling the tax code, which has not been done since 1986 and involves navigating a snake pit of competing special interests. Like Trump's healthcare proposal, it could struggle against public opinion, with Democrats likely to cast it as a Republican giveaway to the rich.
There was also a feeling among some Republicans that they had escaped a looming disaster. Even if the bill had passed the House, it faced a radical overhaul in the Senate, meaning both chambers would have been tied up battling over the bill for weeks, perhaps months.
And if it became law and millions of voters lost health insurance, some Republicans feared they could suffer at the polls.
Instead, those Republicans have to hope voters will not punish them for failing to deliver on a promise they had been making since Obamacare was passed in 2010, and that they will still believe this president when he says he can strike a deal.
“This is a promise the GOP made to voters. They need to get it right,” said Rachel Bovard, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, as she urged Republicans to "start over."
It is unclear when that could happen. "This bill is dead,” said Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, a member of the House leadership team.
(Additional reporting by Dustin Volz, Richard Cowan and Joseph Ax; Editing by Jason Szep and Leslie Adler)