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Mar 22, 3:51 AM EDT

Trump seeks health care triumph _ so he can move on


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WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Donald Trump's pitch on a polarizing Republican health care bill in the House amounts to a means to an end: a way to move on to what he calls "the biggest tax cut since Ronald Reagan."

Backed by pro-business elements of his party, Trump has increasingly argued that the repeal and replacement of former President Barack Obama's health care law is a necessary step along the road to other parts of his first-year agenda. In both his public pitches and private meetings with House Republicans to secure passage, Trump appears ready to move on.

"After we repeal and replace Obamacare, our Republican majority will pass massive, historic tax reform, the biggest tax cut since Ronald Reagan - and potentially even bigger," Trump said Tuesday night at a fundraiser for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Trump said they had to start with health care but spoke of a tax overhaul in almost giddy terms: "That one's going to be fun. That's called the wheelhouse."

Trump's eager anticipation of the next item on his agenda is a response to how difficult this one has been. The health care debate has been more contentious, divisive and less politically popular than many Republicans anticipated. Although the party has been long unified in pushing for repeal of Obamacare, it was not united behind an alternative. The process has exposed persistent divisions between conservatives and moderate Republicans, and highlighted the political perils in scaling back government's role in providing health care.

By comparison, even tax reform - a complex and politically tricky exercise - can start to look easy.

Trump's first major hurdle on health care comes in a Thursday House vote. Failure to pass the bill, which was largely drafted by House Speaker Paul Ryan, could spell doom for Trump's central campaign promise to rip apart former President Barack Obama's health law. Rebellion among House Republicans also would undercut Trump's image as a dealmaker, jeopardizing his ability to muscle through tax reform, infrastructure projects, immigration and other issues.

A senior administration official said the White House remained cautiously optimistic that the bill will clear the House on Thursday. Trump's advisers are trying to persuade about 20 to 25 House Republicans who are either opposed to the plan or remain undecided, the official said.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the administration is aiming for House passage Thursday to ensure the bill will be considered by the Senate prior to the Easter recess in Congress that begins April 10.

The Republican bill has generated plenty of opposition. Members of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus oppose it because they say it doesn't go far enough to undo Obamacare. Some moderate GOP members, meanwhile, are wary of a recent Congressional Budget Office analysis predicting 24 million people would lose coverage in a decade.

The battle over the bill was enough to rattle the stock market Tuesday as the Standard & Poor's 500 index slumped 1.1 percent, its steepest loss in five months.

The stock market had been soaring in the wake of Trump's election, a major point of pride for the administration that has touted lower taxes as key for accelerating economic growth. But the showdown over replacing Obamacare has investors starting to question whether Trump can deliver on their top priority: promised rate cuts for corporate and individual taxes.

Trump's ends-justifies-the-means argument echoes one being made by business groups in Washington, who are eyeing a large corporate tax overhaul later this year. As a candidate, Trump proposed slashing the corporate tax rate to 20 percent from 35 percent, a move that would fatten corporate profits with the stroke of a pen.

House and Senate Republicans are divided over elements of the tax proposal, with Senate Republicans questioning a House plan that would replace the current 35 percent tax on corporate profits with a border adjustment tax. If Trump can't manage to steer the health care overhaul through the House, shepherding legislation like tax reform could be even more difficult.

Some Trump allies are already suggesting alternatives. Chris Ruddy, longtime Trump friend and the head of NewsMax, said the president was "given a damaged bill of goods by Paul Ryan and the House leadership." There was conflict because "the president's base, tea party Republicans, wanted a complete absolute repeal of the law. The president didn't entirely subscribe to that. He wanted a repeal, but he wanted universal coverage for poor people," he said.

Ruddy said Trump should "ignore the Freedom Caucus and go to the center. I think it would be easier to get thirty Democrats to support a reform of Obamacare than it is to get thirty Freedom members to support any overhaul."

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Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Catherine Lucey and Josh Boak contributed to this report.

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