Trump’s words are standing in the way of the GOP’s traditional agenda
(CNN) — During the campaign and in the early stages of his presidency, there were two competing theories on how President Donald Trump would relate to Republicans in Congress. One said they would clash, repeatedly, first over the new President’s pledge to spend big on infrastructure. Another suggested they would quickly gel, as Trump provided the GOP majorities on Capitol Hill with a long awaited rubber stamp in the Oval Office.
But on Trump’s 40th day in power, a different dynamic is emerging.
While a mutiny seems unlikely, congressional Republicans expecting a tide of legislation to roll down from Capitol Hill to Trump’s desk might be disappointed — and, understandably, more than a little nervous about the future. Their long, pre-Trump effort to repeal Obamacare never yielded a unifying replacement plan and the knotty work of shaping a budget doesn’t figure to be untangled in the near future.
In fact, Trump’s sincere — if sanguine — desire to push for these traditional Republican agenda items could be exacerbating difficulties and GOP infighting that well predates his arrival in Washington.
When the White House announced a proposed $54 billion increase in defense spending, Sen. John McCain complained that it was only a 3% increase over what former President Barack Obama’s administration had already projected. And there’s also no clear way forward on how to pay for a massive infrastructure spending bill, or border wall, Trump has long listed as a priority.
Plans for a major overhaul the tax code — translation: slashing rates for individuals and businesses — are not yet formed or public. The effort to undo and replace Obama’s health care law is similarly uncertain.
But that hasn’t stopped Trump from continuing to make big, bold promises on every front. The President’s habit of touting the grandeur of forthcoming plans that are, in reality, a long way off, has often complicated the process.
Days before his inauguration he touted a nebulous health care reform package that would provide “insurance for everybody,” raising red flags for conservatives. House Speaker Paul Ryan is more likely to say he’d give everyone access to insurance, but stop well short of guaranteeing it.
Trump, though, is by his nature drawn to simply delivered, absolutist rhetoric.
“We have a plan that I think is going to be fantastic. It’s going to be released fairly soon,” he told a meeting of insurance executives at the White House on Monday. “I think it’s going to be something special.”
A little earlier, during a meeting with governors from across the country, he copped to the complexity of the matter.
But Trump has never backed off the fundamental assertion that whatever replaces Obamacare will exceed it in breadth while costing less.
Meanwhile, the elected officials charged with actually drawing up those plans appear at loose ends. They are calling on the White House for more specific guidance on the way forward — an ironic bookend to congressional Democrats’ own frustrations with vague signals from the Obama administration during the law’s construction in 2009 and 2010.
Former House Speaker John Boehner, either because he is now out of the loop or simply free now to speak his mind, said last week of Obamacare: “I shouldn’t have called it repeal and replace because that’s not what’s going to happen.”
“They’re basically going to fix the flaws,” he told attendees at a trade conference in Florida, “and put a more conservative box around it.”
Trump has been similarly, boisterously optimistic on the budget and tax questions.
“Lowering the overall tax burden on American businesses big league, that’s coming along very well,” he told airline executives at a White House meeting. “We’re way ahead of schedule I believe and we’re going to be announcing something I’d say over the next two or three weeks that will be phenomenal in terms of tax and developing our aviation infrastructure.”
That was nearly three weeks ago, on February 9.
We’re now at the outer edges of Trump’s timeline and there are no major, detailed announcements about tax reform or a broad infrastructure plan in the offing. His speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night is expected to focus heavily on national security — including $54 billion in proposed increases to defense spending to pairs with cuts to other agencies, like the EPA — and an argument for “America First” economic policies.
But Capitol Hill is openly agitating for more details and direction.
“We talk about (health care) all day every day so we’ve got lots and lots of ideas. They need to be brought together in a single course and agreed on,” Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch told CNN. “That’s where we need to be. He’s the President. He needs to be part of this also.”
Further complicating the situation is Trump’s strong standing among Republican voters.
A recent poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal showed his approval rating among GOP respondents at 85%. Congress, on the other hand, has been deeply unpopular for years. That means opposing Trump, or publicly criticizing his approach, could carry more political peril than the rank-and-file are willing to bear.