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U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) speaks during an interview in her office on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 24, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein(reuters_tickers)
By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump exhorted every Republican to vote yes on a healthcare overhaul when it comes before the Senate this week, but one of his party's most vocal opponents of the bill, Senator Susan Collins, said he had made no effort to reach her.
"The Democrats aren't giving us one vote, so we need virtually every single vote from the Republicans, not easy to do," Trump declared Monday in the White House, appearing with families he said had been harmed by Obamacare.
Hours later on Capitol Hill, Collins, one of a handful of Republican holdouts and the party's most reliable moderate in the Senate, said she had not heard from Trump.
"I've had conversations with Vice President (Mike) Pence, and Seema Verma, and Reince Priebus has called me a few times, to discuss the bill, but the president understandably I think is focussing on others," Collins said in an interview on Monday evening with Reuters.
Verma is the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and Priebus is White House chief of staff.
Asked if Trump had given up on her, Collins said: "I don't know but it sounded that way from one of his press statements that I saw. He said something like - 'Susan Collins, she's from Maine.' As if that explained it."
After a mostly hands-off approach to the Senate debate on healthcare over the past few weeks, Trump urged fellow Republicans on Monday to deliver on their promise of the past seven years to repeal and replace the 2010 Affordable Care Act, former Democratic President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law, popularly known as Obamacare.
A defeat in the Senate would be a major setback for Trump and congressional Republicans, who view Obamacare as government intrusion in the healthcare market. Critics warn the Republican bill will deprive millions of health insurance.
Collins, who voted two years ago against a repeal of Obamacare, repeated on Monday she would vote "no" on a motion to proceed to any of the known versions of the legislation now being circulated to repeal or overhaul the healthcare law.
The 64-year-old Maine lawmaker refused to try to predict what the outcome would be when the Senate votes on Tuesday on whether to open debate on a Republican healthcare bill. Once that episode is over, she said she hoped lawmakers would start work on a bipartisan bill on healthcare.
"My hope is that we'll end up going back to committee and doing what we should have in the first place: which is having hearings, perhaps coming up with several smaller bills to address the very real problems created by the Affordable Care Act," she said.
Representatives of the Trump administration, asked whether the president intended to contact recalcitrant senators such as Collins, said others in the administration had done so.
"We've talked to virtually every single Republican senator," Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price told reporters, noting that Collins had been at the White House on a number of occasions.
Collins said lawmakers would first need to address the collapse of insurance markets in many counties across the country. She said Congress should fund cost-sharing subsidies that help keep down consumers' out-of-pocket costs.
Collins, who said she had held individual discussions with at least eight Senate Democrats about some kind of bipartisan healthcare effort, said she believed Trump would sign a bipartisan healthcare bill. "At times he called for a bipartisan bill, and so I think he'd be fine with a bipartisan bill."
She was forthright about her problems with the Senate Republican approach, including its sweeping cuts to Medicaid, the government healthcare programme for the poor, and the expected increase in costs for older Americans who buy private health insurance.
Maine's population is older, mostly rural, and one-fifth of the population is on Medicaid. The median age is 43, the oldest in the country.
"In northern Maine, where the (insurance) rates are highest, and the population is older, the information from what I've seen, it (the cost of insurance) would be like a third of their income in some cases. So I'm very concerned about that," Collins said.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)