After months of hammering Republicans over their failure to repeal Obamacare, President Donald Trump huddled this week with moderate House Democrats and Republicans who were trying to sell him on a fix to the health care law.
Upon hearing it had bipartisan support, the president had one question: “Can I call it ‘repeal and replace’?”
“You can call it whatever you want, Mr. President,” a Democratic lawmaker told Trump, eliciting laughter throughout the room.
The president loved that response.
Trump is on a bipartisan tear of late. Elated by what he viewed as glowing press after his debt ceiling deal with Democratic leaders “Chuck and Nancy” last week, Trump wants to replicate that thrill of victory, which he believes Republicans have failed to deliver since his inauguration.
In recent weeks, Trump has complained in private that it’s difficult to have any sort of relationship — or even make small talk — with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He’s told staff that he finds Speaker Paul Ryan, whom he’s dubbed a “boy scout,” dry as well, but the two have some rapport.
By contrast, Trump can relate to Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, who talk more in non-Washington terms that he understands, according to people familiar with their meetings. Trump wants to keep meeting with them.
No one knows how long his bipartisan kick will last or how successful he’ll be. Democrats have little political upside to working with an unpopular president whom their base abhors. And there will certainly be limits to how much the White House can cut out Republican leadership, who still control what the House and Senate actually vote on.
There are huge chasms substantively, too. Trump, for instance, told Democrats on Wednesday night that his tax plan was for the middle class and not the rich. That prompted Schumer and Pelosi to note parts of the pending proposal that would benefit the wealthy.
Still, after feeling Republicans in Congress had largely failed him, Trump has decided that he will work with whoever can give him wins, according to White House sources familiar with his thinking.
During his half-hour meeting with the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus at the White House, Trump left the door open to combining a massive tax cut and an infrastructure package, an idea GOP leaders have rejected. He also tasked his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, with setting up a working group on taxes with Blue Dog Democrats.
He also told that group his tax plan wouldn’t help the rich. And he suggested his proposed border wall with Mexico need not be part of a deal allowing “Dreamers” to say in the country legally.
When a staffer entered the room to say it was time to go, Trump kept talking, according to one lawmaker present. And the intensity of the conversation as well as the presence of Trump’s most senior advisers — including Cohn, chief of staff John Kelly, budget director Mick Mulvaney to legislative liaison Marc Short — caught Democratic attendees by surprise.
“I assumed he was going to lecture us for about an hour and tell us how great he was and talk about the election, but he didn’t do that. It was pretty productive,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), who attended the meeting. “He engaged members and said, ‘What do you want to do?’”
A senior administration official said the only Republican in leadership with whom Trump has a personal connection is House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a back-slapping Californian whose penchant for schmoozing mirrors the president’s. And because of the stale dynamic with GOP leaders, the same person said, “You would have to be an idiot if you didn’t see [his Democrat infatuation] coming.”
During a meeting with New York and New Jersey Democrats last week, Trump called New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo “my governor” and asked how he could help with New York infrastructure projects, particularly LaGuardia and JFK airports.
Trump also talked about the recovery from Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and the construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge, a throwback to his hometown. He mused at the gathering that everyone loved the debt ceiling deal he’d struck with Democratic leaders a day earlier because it was “bipartisan” — even if people didn’t understand the specifics of it.
One attendee said he grinned so much at Schumer that it was “almost uncomfortable.” He shook Schumer’s hand repeatedly and said in private he was better at keeping his caucus together than Republicans — and that he wanted to work together more often.
“Schumer just talks to him. You get Mitch and Paul in here, and they’re trying to explain this or that, and there is no personal connection,” said a White House source.
The feeling appears to be mutual. Schumer was caught on a hot mic Thursday telling a colleague that Trump “likes me.”
Trump kicked off his meeting with the Problem Solvers with a call to reach across the aisle on tax reform, telling the bipartisan group: “I want to give this a try and see if it works.”
When Democrats asked him to use hundreds of billions of dollars generated from tax reform to rebuild the nation’s bridges and roads, Trump did not rule it out. Nodding to Cohn, he said his advisers believe a standalone tax bill is the best way to get something done — but if that gets stuck, maybe they could reconsider.
While Democrats dismissed as hyperbole Trump’s continued insistence that the corporate tax rate would be cut to 15 percent, they were intrigued by his pledge not to cut taxes for the rich.
Contrast that with GOP leadership’s approach: The Big Six — Cohn, Ryan, McConnell, the top tax Republicans and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — are currently the only ones with a seat at the table in crafting the bill.
When the conversation turned to Dreamers, Trump sympathized with undocumented immigrants serving in the military who could find themselves being deported. Trump also floated dropping the wall from any DACA agreement — Democrats didn’t even have to ask — an idea he would later share with Pelosi and Schumer.
Schrader described the Problem Solvers’ bipartisan Obamacare fix and said at least 20 Democrats would back the bill. It would look like a big win for him, the lawmaker added.
“Is that like that Tennessee Republican’s idea?” Trump asked, according to multiple sources in the room, referring to Sen. Lamar Alexander’s very similar legislation to shore up Obamacare markets — an idea loathed by conservatives.
A few hours later, Trump was “jovial” and laughing with Pelosi and Schumer over Chinese food. They talked about trade policy and relations with China before moving on to DACA.
“It’s clear he’s open to a new world here: to do things together,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), who leads the Problem Solvers Caucus and attended the meeting, said. “And he said, ‘We’re going to try this. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try a different way.’”