Can Trump and Congress turn outreach into legislation?

President Trump has opened lines of communication with Congress – though mostly his own party. But it’s time to go from glad-handing to handling policy details, political scientists say.

Alex Brandon/AP
Vice President Mike Pence waves as he leaves Capitol Hill in Washington Jan. 31, after attending the Republican caucus luncheon. Unusually, Mr. Pence has been given an office on the House side of the Capitol, and he confabs every week with his GOP Senate colleagues at their Tuesday caucus lunch.

To get anything done in Washington, a president’s got to keep the lines of communication open with Capitol Hill. President Trump, with some notable exceptions, appears to have that pipeline flowing – though largely to his own party.

Mr. Trump lost no time inviting lawmakers to the White House. When Congress was on recess last week, Hill staffers from both parties headed to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue for bowling and pizza, part of a concerted outreach.

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks several times a week with the president. Other members of Congress call Trump directly on his cellphone. And the vice president’s motorcade cruises regularly to the Capitol’s wide plaza to dispense the White House's point man – Mike Pence, a former congressman.

“There’s no ambassador quite like ... the vice president,” says Sen. James Lankford (R) of Oklahoma. Unusually, the peripatetic Mr. Pence, who is president of the Senate, has been given an office on the House side of the Capitol, and he confabs every week with his GOP Senate colleagues at their Tuesday caucus lunch.

Trump has mostly reached out to fellow Republicans – though he’s also strategically wooing a handful of Democrats from red states who are up for reelection in 2018, among them Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

In six weeks, “I’ve spoken with this White House and this president more than I did the other president in six years,” says Senator Manchin, referring to President Obama, who was criticized for not schmoozing enough with Hill folk.

Policymaking is harder

But as observers point out, schmoozing only takes a president so far. Now that Congress is moving into the legislative phase, it’s time to go from glad-handing to handling policy details – at which Trump is a novice. His speech before Congress this week, while striking a more inclusive tone, was mostly broad talking points.

“There’s no harm in doing the schmoozing, and in some cases, you actually build authentic relationships. But that does not translate into people abandoning their world view with respect to certain public policies,” says Patrick Griffin, former director of legislative affairs for President Clinton.

Republicans are still divided on their first big legislative item – repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. On Wednesday, key House chairmen working on the legislation came over to brief Senate Republicans behind closed doors.

Three Senate conservatives oppose the legislation – enough to sink it in the Senate, while House conservatives aren’t happy with it, either. GOP governors are also divided. Meanwhile, some moderate Republican senators back a different plan.

Republicans are also far from agreement on tax reform, the next big item for this year.

The GOP may now be the dominant party in America, controlling Congress, the White House, and 33 governorships, but it’s also incredibly diverse. The larger the tent, the harder it is to find consensus, says Jennifer Victor, a political science professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

At the same time, Trump wants to get things done that appeal more to Democrats, such as making a big investment in infrastructure and renegotiating trade deals.

“He has to build coalitions that include the opposition. He has absolutely no experience in that,” says Professor Victor, an expert in legislative politics. Dealmaking with legislators is “entirely different” than negotiating business deals, she says. “It’s multidimensional chess on a level we’ve never seen him play.”

Coming to push and shove

Trump can probably delegate the details to people like Pence and his cabinet, says Mr. Griffin. But when policy meets politics – as it does with Obamacare repeal – only the president has the clout, the political capital, to knock heads together or sweeten a deal.

“You need muscle, and Pence is not going to be able to do that,” says Griffin. “What matters is whether or not the president has some stroke behind who he is. The reaching out, the fight, the policy, it only adds up to a strategy if he’s got some standing that makes folks pay attention to him.”

Mr. Obama had that standing in the beginning, but it faded after health-care reform. President Clinton had the social skills to work with Congress, but made ham-handed mistakes in his first year that cost him the majority.

After his election was decided by the United States Supreme Court, George W. Bush dipped several times into low job approval ratings. But he was rescued politically by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which produced a surge of national unity.

Using his base

President Trump’s approval ratings are at a historic low for a new president – but not among Republicans and certainly not among his base. Therein lies his clout, if he’ll use it with his own party, says Griffin. “He certainly has the nerve.”

The former Clinton aide says Trump needs a “bolder” strategy, not only to forge agreement within the GOP, but with Democrats – though he admits it could get dicey with conservatives.

“If he can just be a little nicer in the way he talks with Democrats, he may convince some of them to go along with him,” particularly on fixing Obamacare, says Griffin. His attack on the health law in his address to Congress “was gratuitously hostile. He needs Democrats.... It was a stupid play.”

Indeed, Senate minority leader Charles Schumer (D) of New York has had no personal contact with the president since he visited the White House with other congressional leaders shortly after the inauguration – though there's been staff contact. 

Senator Manchin, whom liberal groups want removed from the Democratic leadership because he's too close to the White House, points out that communication works both ways.

“The president can outreach and his staff, and we can outreach,” he says. “They’ve been pretty receptive.” Democrats may not like that Republicans stopped them up during the Obama years, “but two wrongs don’t make a right. We’ve got a chance to move forward on some issues.”

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