Sen. Lamar Alexander said Monday President Trump encouraged him to work on a short-term healthcare deal with Democrats.
"He called me a week ago, and he called me on Saturday, and we had good conversation each time and he encouraged me to get a result with Sen. Murray," Alexander said of Sen. Patty Murray, the top-ranking Democrat on the committee.
"He said, 'I don't want people to suffer.' Those were his words ... and he's aware that during this interim that might happen."
Alexander is the chairman of the committee working on legislation to stabilize Obamacare.
Trump had initially not been supportive of bipartisan efforts in September, instead encouraging Republicans to work on a bill that would have overhauled Obamacare.
Congress has run out of time to consider their options along party lines because of budget rules, but members can still work to stabilize the exchanges as long as a bill earns 60 votes in the Senate. In his role as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Alexander has been working with Murray since September to arrive at a deal that would stabilize Obamacare during the next two years.
"I would like to repeal and replace Obamacare and Sen. Murray would like to keep it in tact," he told reporters. "But that's not how you make a compromise."
Adding to the pressure to arrive at a deal was Trump's decision on Thursday to end cost-sharing reduction payments that go to insurers and help pay for out-of-pocket medical costs for Obamacare customers. Without the payments, premiums on middle-income Americans will rise by an average of 20 percent, and more insurers could look to exit the exchanges because insurers are still required by law to offer the payments.
Trump has said openly he cut off the funds to pressure Congress to arrive at a healthcare deal, and his administration has noted a judge ruled their authorization through the executive branch, rather than appropriation through Congress, was ruled illegal under former President Barack Obama.
Murray called Trump's decision "really disappointing."
"I hope that we can feel good about us getting a deal done but that was not helpful," she said, adding the pressure already was underway to work on a deal as they had begun talks in September.
Alexander confirmed he and other Republicans were willing to offer legislation that would appropriate the funds for two years, though he said they were looking at ways to pay the funds directly to consumers rather than to insurance companies.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said he believed Congress would need to set up a transition period and he encouraged the HELP committee to come up with a bipartisan solution.
"I'm not for long-term allocation of taxpayer dollars for CSRs, but I think a precipitous drop could be disruptive and we kind of owe that to the people who are getting policies that the CSRs help," Tillis said.
Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said he was hopeful the committee could present a deal this week and said it involves a proposal similar to a high-risk pool, in which government funds target more expensive medical conditions.
It would involve, he said, "taking some people who are not insurable elsewhere, separating them out and doing specialty management" in some states.
Alexander did not offer details of the policy and one of his senior aides also would not elaborate, but Alexander suggested a deal had not been reached because Democrats had not offered enough flexibility in how states implement the law.
Asked what he wanted in terms of flexibility on Obamacare, Alexander replied, "I want as much as we can get."
Bringing prices down, he emphasized, could be achieved both through cost-sharing payments and through "meaningful flexibility" for states "in the choices they offer consumers." Democrats have balked at this because they say they fear states may refuse to offer coverage that includes a wide-range of medical services, from maternity care to addiction treatment, and they have accused Republicans of trying to find ways to charge sicker customers more.
Conservatives are also unwilling to work on a deal that goes short of the promises the party made during the past seven years to overturn the law. Conn Carroll, a spokesman for Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Lee and other conservatives believed Trump should have cut off the cost-sharing funds in January after becoming president.Asked whether the bipartisan deal could offer anything to earn his vote, Carroll replied, "Yes of course: Repealing Obamacare."
Alexander did not say how GOP leadership felt about his negotiations, saying they had been focusing on tax reform but they had asked him to see whether he could arrive at a consensus.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had lunch with Trump Monday and appeared beside him in the Rose Garden at the White House, where Trump laid out the agenda for healthcare, saying a short-term bill would come first but that Republicans would re-explore repeal and replace in the spring.Alexander would not lay out a timeline for arriving at a deal, saying only, "The sooner the better." "We want whatever we have to benefit people in 2018 by holding down increases in premiums and by getting them to lower them in 2019 ... I want to undersell this rather than oversell it but none of us want millions of people to be hurt, which they will be, if we don't come to a conclusion," he said.
Robert King contributed to this report.