USA Politics First Look

GOP donors close checkbooks, urging stronger action on health care reform

Prominent GOP donors expressed their frustration over the Trump administration’s efforts to upend Obamacare through aggressive lobbying, refusing to host fundraisers, and warning of ‘consequences.’

Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips, accompanied by FreedomWorks President Adam Brandon, speaks to members of the media outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, March 8, 2017. The conservative advocacy groups, along with their founders, the Koch brothers, and other influential GOP donors expressed their disapproval of the progress toward repealing Obamacare, in one case refusing to host additional fundraisers pending major effort by the Trump administration.
Andrew Harnik/AP
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  • Steve Peoples
    Associated Press

At least one influential donor has informed congressional Republicans that the "Dallas piggy bank" is closed until he sees major action on health care and taxes.

Texas-based donor Doug Deason has already refused to host a fundraiser for two members of Congress and informed House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R) of California his checkbook is closed as well.

"Get Obamacare repealed and replaced, get tax reform passed," Mr. Deason said in a pointed message to GOP leaders. "You control the Senate. You control the House. You have the presidency. There's no reason you can't get this done. Get it done and we'll open it back up."

Indeed, there was a sense of frustration and urgency inside the private receptions and closed-door briefings at the Koch brothers' donor retreat this weekend in Colorado Springs, where the billionaire conservatives and their chief lieutenants warned of a rapidly shrinking window to push their agenda through Congress and get legislation to President Trump to sign into law.

No agenda items mattered more to the conservative Koch network than the GOP's promise to overhaul the nation's tax code and repeal and replace former President Barack Obama's health care law. At the moment, however, both are bogged down by GOP infighting that jeopardizes their fate.

At least one Koch official warned that the Republican Party's House majority could be in jeopardy if the GOP-led Congress doesn't follow through.

"If they don't make good on these promises ... there are going to be consequences, and quite frankly there should be," said Sean Lansing, chief operating officer for the Koch network's political arm, Americans For Prosperity.

Deason, who is keeping the "Dallas piggy bank" closed for now, said he was recently approached by Rep. Mark Meadows (R) of North Carolina and Rep. Jim Jordan (R) of Ohio about hosting a fundraiser.

"I said, 'No I'm not going to because we're closing the checkbook until you get some things done,' " Deason said, noting he's encouraged nearly two dozen major Texas donors to follow his lead.

"There is urgency," said AFP president Tim Phillips. "We believe we have a window of about 12 months to get as much of it accomplished as possible before the 2018 elections grind policy to a halt."

The window for action may be even smaller, some Koch allies warned at the three-day donor retreat that drew roughly 400 participants to the base of the Rocky Mountains. The price for admission for most was a pledge to give at least $100,000 this year to the Kochs' broad policy and political network. There were also at least 18 elected officials on hand.

Some hosted private policy discussions with donors while others simply mingled.

In between meetings, Rep. Dave Brat (R) of Virginia predicted dire consequences in next year's midterm elections should his party fail to deliver on its repeated promises.

"If we don't get health care, none of us are coming back," he said in a brief interview. "We said for seven years you're gonna repeal Obamacare. It's nowhere near repealed."

It's the same for an overhaul of the tax code, Representative Brat said: "We don't get taxes through, we're all going home. Pack the bags."

While some donors threatened to withhold campaign cash, Koch's team outlined a broader strategy to help shape the debate.

Already, Americans For Prosperity claims a paid staff of more than 400 full-time activists in 36 states. Koch officials said that the network's midterm budget for policy and politics is between $300 million and $400 million.

The group is actively lobbying Senate Republicans to change their current health care proposal, which it views as insufficiently conservative.

"We are not committed to the Senate bill in its current form, but there is still time to make changes and we're actively working to improve it," Mr. Phillips said.

At the same time, Koch's allies are aggressively pushing forward on taxes.

The network is running what it describes as "a first wave" of digital ads calling on more than 50 House and Senate Republicans in both parties to overhaul the tax code. Later in the summer, Philips said, his organization will begin hosting rallies and other events to generate momentum for a tax overhaul in all 36 states where they have full-time operations.

Another Koch donor, Chris Wright of Colorado, predicted Republicans have a 10-month window before any chance of major policy action is suffocated by next year's midterms.

"If we don't get anything done by then, the elections probably don't go very well," Mr. Wright said. "They may not go well anyway."

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