Trump's shotgun marriage with GOP Congress off to a tentative start

The GOP-led Congress has laid out a highly ambitious agenda, and Trump is eager to get things done. But their different styles could add friction.

Mark Makela/Reuters
President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and House Speaker Paul Ryan greet one another on stage during the 2017 "Congress of Tomorrow" Joint Republican Issues Conference in Philadelphia on Jan. 26, 2017.

Think of week one in the relationship between the new President Trump and Republicans in Congress as a shotgun marriage – an unlikely couple brought together by circumstances, trying to make things work but with questions about whether they can pull it off.

When Mr. Trump appeared before House and Senate Republicans at their retreat in Philadelphia on Thursday, he was his usual braggadocious self, savoring his underdog victory in the state, listing his “record” number of executive orders, then running through his ambitious to-do list.

He also put his best Trumpian foot forward, throwing in a bit of self-deprecation, praising his congressional cabinet picks, and joking with Mitch McConnell, the taciturn Senate majority leader from Kentucky. Lawmakers were generous with standing ovations, applause, and laughs – though silent on a couple of touchy points.

“This was a really warm meeting with the president,” said Sen. Jim Risch (R) of Idaho, telling reporters after the speech that he’s “optimistic” – though he couldn’t put his finger on why,  exactly. “You can’t describe it, you just know it when you see it, and it’s a feel as much as anything else.”

Republicans sense a huge opportunity with their control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. At the retreat, Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin laid out a “big, bold” 200-day agenda that covers Affordable Care Act repeal-and-replace, tax reform, regulation roll-back, the debt ceiling, paying for the wall, and – added at the president’s insistence – infrastructure.

It is hugely ambitious, especially for an institution designed by America’s founders to be slow and deliberative. That’s not Trump’s style, and his impatience and tweeting reflexes could add more friction to GOP efforts to push these legislative priorities through Congress.

That ambition is not unprecedented: Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, a creature of the Senate, had a "massive agenda" in the 1960s – from civil rights laws to his antipoverty program – but he also knew how to deal with Congress, says James Pitney, a congressional expert at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. 

"[Trump] has all of LBJ's ego, without any of LBJ's legislative skill," says Prof. Pitney. Johnson "knew the mechanics. He knew the personalities. Trump does not."

Republicans plan to use a special budget process to pass their two top priorities – Obamacare repeal and tax reform – by majority vote and without the help of Democrats. But the issues are complicated, and views differ among Republicans about how best to address them, says Pitney. He calls the agenda “a clash between reality and fantasy.”

For instance, GOP lawmakers can’t agree on whether to actually repeal taxes that support Obamacare or keep them in place until a transition time is over. And that’s not even getting to the details of a replacement, for which there is no consensus – even after lawmakers held a special session on healthcare at the retreat. 

At a joint press conference with Speaker Ryan on Thursday, Senator McConnell was confident that they would accomplish their two highest priorities, but pointed out that the Senate has about 1,200 Trump appointees to confirm. And then there’s the announcement of a Supreme Court nominee next week. “We’re big in the personnel business,” he said.

The House doesn’t have to worry about that, nor does it have to contend with the Senate’s special rules and much slower pace. That’s something that the new president is confronting. In his speech, he complained that the Senate has not yet confirmed his full cabinet. “They are not quick with the pen on signing these people.”

Trump has a businessman's understanding of how Congress works, says John Feehery, former spokesman for Dennis Hastert, the longest serving Republican speaker of the House. “They go in, they give money, they don’t get what they want, they get frustrated.” He's on a steep learning curve.

Likewise, Republican lawmakers are trying to figure out how to work with a president who is unlike any they’ve encountered before. As Republicans huddled at their secure hotel in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Trump surprised them with tweets about a voter fraud investigation.

“This is going to be an unconventional presidency,” said Speaker Ryan at the press conference the next morning. “I think we're going to see unconventional activities like tweets and things like that, and I think that's just something that we're all going to have to get used to.”

The voter fraud tweet seemed to roll off the backs of lawmakers – and several say they just ignore the tweet eruptions and try to focus on policy.

“I don't see any evidence [of widespread fraud],” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah, chairman of the House oversight committee. His committee has no plans to investigate, “but the president has 100,000 people at the Department of Justice, [and] if he wants to do an investigation, have at it.” 

In another surprise, The New York Times reported that the Trump administration was apparently going to review reopening “black site” prisons and undoing restrictions on interrogations.

Lawmakers put their foot down and said there would be no return to torture. The White House denied the Times story, also reported by the Associated Press, saying the leak – not from the administration – was an old memo from the transition period.

Still, don't expect Republicans to “actively challenge” Trump in the near future, says Professor Pitney. They’re afraid of primary voters – Trumpsters – and of the president’s wrath, he and other observers say.

Meanwhile, they want to prove to Americans that they can get the job done, and to do that, they need to work with each other.

“This Congress is going to be the busiest Congress we've had in decades, maybe ever,” the president told his Republican colleagues.

But seasoned politicians such as Senator Risch point to the slow nature of Congress and the complexities of the issue. With tasks such as replacing Obamacare, "We are going to have to be patient," he said.

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