Politico

Republicans beg Trump for direction with Capitol Hill address

Written by Lisa

Republicans won unified control of government nearly four months ago — yet find their party’s agenda stalled amid infighting. Now GOP lawmakers are pinning their hopes on President Donald Trump to break the logjam and take control.

Forget another campaign speech. The GOP wants Trump to grab the bully pulpit Tuesday with his first address to a joint session of Congress and lay out a viable path to complete the difficult tasks of overhauling the nation’s health care system, rewriting the tax code and building a massive wall on the southern border.

If the president fails to whip bickering lawmakers into line, his most important campaign promises could wither on Capitol Hill.

“He’s got a bully pulpit, not only with the country, but with members of Congress,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican. “If you want to start getting a convergence of thought and direction up here, the president can do a lot to make that happen.”

Trump’s often ambiguous policy views may have been an effective campaign tactic, but these days they are a major source of confusion to members of his own party. And time may be running out for Trump to capitalize on what political momentum he still retains to push through his agenda amid Democratic resistance and GOP divisions.

Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have just two months before their first government shutdown deadline and a few months more before the debt limit expires. By the fall of this year, calculations about the midterm elections will begin infecting every decision on Capitol Hill, making each big decision more difficult.

That means the time for moving Republicans’ top priorities is now, especially as the House, Senate and White House are already struggling to iron out differences on major legislation.

A month ago at a GOP retreat in Philadelphia, Ryan charted out an Obamacare repeal vote in the early spring, followed by tax reform. Hill Republicans can accomplish much of that on party-line votes, but they want Trump to say unequivocally what he wants from them on Tuesday.

“We seem to get some conflicting comments from the administration on various policies, where you’ll have the Cabinet … saying one thing and his advisers saying another,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said Monday. “It’s important that the president spell out what the policies are tomorrow night to clarify some of the confusion out there.”

Several aides briefed on Trump’s speech said they expect it to be “high level” — in other words, without many specific details that would highlight the GOP’s splits. And some Republicans doubt they will get the guidance they need from Trump on divisive issues like how to handle Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and a potential new tax on imports.

“I don’t think the State of the Union is the place to intervene on any specific level. But I think it would be helpful if the president reinforced the goals,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of GOP leadership. (Technically, Tuesday’s speech is not a State of the Union address.)

On each big-ticket issue, Trump has made contradictory comments about how he wants to proceed. On Obamacare, he’s suggested keeping or even expanding coverage for low-income Americans that some Republicans oppose. He’s said more Americans will receive better coverage under his plan for less money, a promise that will be difficult if not impossible to execute in Congress.

“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” Trump mused on Monday.

The president has repeatedly said he is close to finishing and releasing his plan, even though Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has suggested the administration won’t be offering a formal proposal. Meanwhile, the House and Senate are struggling to find their own solutions on revamping a law that has provided health insurance for 20 million Americans. Trump weighed in on the matter in January, tasking the GOP with coming up with a replacement before repealing the law — a decision that slowed Republicans’ plans, even as public support for Obamacare ticked up and town halls became feisty forums for defending the law.

“He’s said some stuff like, ‘We’re going to cover all people,’ and so that throws a little ambiguity out there as to what exactly that means,” said conservative Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.). “And so if he can clarify that, and I think he’s going to, I think he’s going to go beyond the bullet points into some specifics [Tuesday] night.”

Trump’s address has the potential to settle a number of internal GOP divisions that have slowed down the repeal process on the Hill. On Monday, for example, the leaders of the House’s two most conservative caucuses — the House Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Committee — came out against a leaked draft proposal of an Obamacare repeal bill written by House GOP leadership. HFC Chairman Mark Meadows and RSC Chairman Mark Walker have both taken issue with the GOP plan to give lower-income Americans tax credits to pay for health care — though many Republicans in the Senate and House welcome the idea.

Tax reform talks have bogged down over Ryan’s controversial import tax plans, which have repulsed Senate Republicans and divided Trump’s own advisers in the White House. Ryan’s so-called border adjustment tax, which would effectively hike taxes on imports, is intended to help Republicans slash corporate and personal tax rates without increasing the deficit. Without the revenue it brings in, major tax reform could prove impossible.

Trump has spoken of the trillion-dollar proposal both favorably and unfavorably in recent weeks, leaving partisans on each side unsure of what he thinks of a proposal that he has said is both “too complicated” and could lead to “a lot more jobs.”

“We’re still in the thinking mode about all that. He doesn’t want to offend the House. But to be honest with you, I don’t think the [White House] is very favorable towards it,” said Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Tax reform and Obamacare repeal have long been on the GOP docket. But Trump has brought some of his own priorities to the White House — and Republicans are still waiting for the details on how they can get a massive infrastructure bill through Congress. Then there’s the border wall that Trump has made a priority of his rhetoric for more than a year.

Republicans are expecting Trump to imminently make a budget request for billions to begin beefing up the country’s border defenses — but how much he will demand from them is unknown, making it tough to lay the groundwork for it to pass the House and Senate, the latter of which requires a supermajority.

“I’ve heard there will be some money to fund the Secure Fence Act that we passed in 2006. But I don’t know how much,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas).

The government runs out of funding in just a few weeks, on April 28. If Republicans haven’t made significant progress on their priorities by then, it could augur a grim outcome for the GOP. Already there is talk of a fight over spending riders and shutdown brinkmanship that would zap all of Capitol Hill’s attention — and chatter grows by the day.

“We don’t want to see that happen. But if they decide that they are so determined to shut down Planned Parenthood that they are willing to shut down the government over it, that’s their decision, not ours,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “Everything is complicated from this point forward.”

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