Trump prepares to address a divided audience: The Republican Congress
By Mike DeBonis, Kelsey Snell and Sean Sullivan | Feb. 28, 2017 | None
President Trump is coming to Capitol Hill on Tuesday night to address the nation — and, perhaps more importantly, his fellow Republicans in Congress who stand divided on key aspects of his legislative agenda.
On health care, tax reform and federal spending, GOP lawmakers hold differences of opinion within their own party that are obstructing passage of ambitious Republican policies, and so far Trump has shown little desire to openly referee those disputes.
The discord was on display Monday as Trump prepared to deliver his first speech as president to a joint session of Congress. The speech, set for prime-time Tuesday night, is expected to outline Trump’s budget goals and other administration priorities.
Many Republican members said this week they are eager for Trump to provide clear marching orders and engage with them directly on his ambitious pledges.
“I think he’s had that learning curve, but it comes to the point where the honeymoon is over and we need to do these things,” said Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.). “I’m just optimistic and I hope things are going to change drastically in this country.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are using the address as an opportunity to take fresh aim at Trump’s agenda, which has stoked controversy and drawn fierce protests across the country. They are focusing particularly closely on the president’s efforts to undo key parts of the Affordable Care Act and his hard-line policies on immigration and border security.
Democrats have selected former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear to deliver the official response to Trump’s speech. Supporters of the ACA have often pointed to Kentucky as a model for successful implementation of the law.
Astrid Silva, an immigration activist and “dreamer,” will deliver the Spanish-language response to Trump’s speech.
The biggest problem for Hill Republicans is that Trump, so far, has not moved beyond vague pledges to immediately repeal and replace the ACA, build a massive wall on the southern border, launch a wide-ranging infrastructure plan and overhaul the tax code. It is unclear whether he will elaborate in any detail in his speech Tuesday night.
The lack of direction from the new president — who is defining his own brand of Republicanism — is making it harder for Hill Republicans to coalesce around the specifics of their own priorities.
One big area of dissonance is the health-care system, where House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has outlined a series of potential changes to the ACA that have so far failed to unite the rank and file. Replacing Obamacare has been a signature campaign promise for congressional Republicans over the seven years since it was enacted.
“We’re doing this step by step,” Ryan said Tuesday on NBC’s “Today” show. “This is how the legislative process is supposed to be designed. We’re not hatching some bill in a backroom and plopping it on the American people’s front door.”
Among the possibilities being floated are replacing Obama-era tax subsidies — which phase out for wealthier Americans — with age-adjusted tax credits available to all individuals regardless of income. The Ryan plan also targets the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, ramping it down over a series of years in a plan that could possibly grandfather in low-income individuals who now use the program for coverage.
One GOP leader, House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), said Monday that a “consensus” has been reached on health care between the White House and leaders in the House and Senate. “I believe the president is going to talk about the consensus,” Sessions said.
But that consensus did not include the leaders of two influential groups of House conservatives, who said Monday that they were dismayed by aspects of the GOP leadership plan — including the tax credits and a proposal to pay for them by rolling back the existing income tax deduction for employer-provided insurance.
“The way it’s put forth would actually take the number of tax credits from 9.5 million people that get a subsidy today and potentially increase it to 40 million people,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. “We’re going to pay for that by putting a tax on union workers and middle-class workers that happen to have good employer insurance. That dog doesn’t hunt.”
Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the larger Republican Study Committee, said Monday he saw “serious problems” with the current plan and could not recommend that his group’s members support it, saying it “risks continuing major Obamacare entitlement expansions and delays any reforms.”
“We’ve got to have more information,” he said in an interview. “As it stands right now, we have a real problem with the Medicaid expansion” that he believes would be phased out too slowly.
In an interview with Fox News Channel on Tuesday, Trump said he planned on Tuesday night to “speak from the heart” and talk about health care, the military and border security.
“Health care is a very complex subject,” Trump said. “If you do this, it affects nine different things. If you do that, it affects 15 different things. I think we have a great plan and I think Congress is absolutely taking a lot of blame, but it’s not their fault. And don’t forget, I’ve only been here for, like, four weeks.”
Republicans were equally fractured over the first elements of Trump’s spending plans. Many Republicans cheered a budget skeleton sketched out Monday by White House budget director Mick Mulvaney that would add $54 billion in defense spending while cutting the same amount from nondefense programs.
The general plan was in line with GOP pledges and marks the beginning of a months-long process to hammer out the final numbers. Yet budget and defense hawks, as well as appropriators, all raised concerns about the details.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) dismissed the budget proposal Monday as an insufficient step toward Trump’s pledge to shore up the military.
“With a world on fire, America cannot secure peace through strength with just 3 percent more than President Obama’s budget,” McCain said in a statement. “We can and must do better.”
Some GOP appropriators, meanwhile, questioned whether nondefense cuts of that scale would be feasible.
“There is more to our government than just defense,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development. “What are you going to do, go out and cut half of [National Institutes of Health] funding? That’s pretty popular not only in Congress but around the country.”
The early spending outline also crashed into concerns from conservatives who worried that Trump was focused on cutting spending from the relatively small pool of discretionary spending rather than concentrating on overhauling costly entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Those two mandatory programs made up nearly $1.5 trillion in federal spending last year. The nondefense programs targeted by Trump cost $600 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Ryan has pledged to separately target Medicaid, which cost $588 billion last year. But that program pales in comparison to the long-term cost of administering the programs Trump has vowed to protect.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stoked those concerns Sunday when he said entitlement cuts were off the table in the upcoming spending blueprint.
“We are not touching those now,” Mnuchin said in an interview on Fox News. “We are very focused on other aspects and that’s what’s very important to us. And that’s the president’s priority.”
Ryan suggested Tuesday that Trump agreed with his own assessment that Social Security and Medicare would ultimately have to be rolled back for younger Americans. “I believe he does,” he said on NBC.
Democratic leaders launched a preemptive attack against Trump on Monday in which they accused the president of breaking promises to middle-class Americans to pursue divisive measures that will benefit the wealthy and “reckless” national security policies that undermine the country’s values and diminish its safety.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) argued that Trump “utterly squandered” his first 40 days in office, focusing on a “brutal agenda to target vulnerable populations and instill fear” instead of providing economic relief for everyday Americans. She singled out the president’s controversial immigration ban, which has been halted by a federal court though the administration says it plans to reissue it.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) predicted that infighting among Republicans and pressure from constituents will prevent the GOP from reaching its long-stated goal of repealing and replacing the ACA.
“I believe the odds are very high we will keep the ACA; it will not be repealed.”