With an eye on tax reform, President Trump courts Democrats

On the heels of last week's deal with Democratic leaders, the president is hosting a dinner party with both Republican and Democratic senators to lay the groundwork for his next legislative target.  

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin (r.), who broke ranks to vote with Republicans for Jeff Sessions to become US Attorney General, looks towards President Trump during a Supreme Court listening session at the White House in Washington on Feb. 9, 2017. Mr. Trump is looking for bipartisan solutions to getting tax reform passed.

President Trump’s top priority is now tax reform, and he is intent on making sure that this effort does not go the way of health-care reform: a failure to secure enough votes from members of his own party.

So he’s wooing Democrats. On Tuesday evening, the president and vice president are hosting a dinner with both Republican and Democratic senators. In a Washington long beset by hyper-polarization, this is news. But it’s the way things used to get done here. And the president’s liaison to Capitol Hill, Marc Short, makes clear that this old normal should become the new normal, following Mr. Trump’s surprise deal with Democratic leaders last week to raise the debt ceiling, fund the government, and provide hurricane relief.

“The president has been clear that his preference is to get tax reform done on a bipartisan basis,” Mr. Short told reporters at a breakfast Tuesday hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “It’s why his first two trips to give national speeches [on tax reform] were to Missouri and to North Dakota.”

Both states voted heavily for Trump last November, and have Democratic senators who face tough reelection bids next year. But to Trump, at the moment, they represent Democratic votes that might be “gettable” on tax reform. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) of North Dakota went so far as to hitch a ride on Air Force One to her home state last week. At the event, Trump called her a “good woman,” and invited her up on stage.

Susan Walsh/AP
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) of North Dakota (l.) walks off of the Senate subway as she heads to a luncheon with Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 12, 2017.

Experienced Capitol Hill hands from both parties say they get what Trump and his legislative affairs director are doing.

“If I was in [Short’s] shoes, I could easily be telling the president that the Republican leadership has nothing to offer you but apologies, because they can’t implement anything that you want,” says Patrick Griffin, who served as President Bill Clinton’s liaison to Capitol Hill.

“Protecting yourself by attacking the Congress is not irrational to me,” Mr. Griffin says. And for the Trump White House, finding an opportunity to “triangulate” with the Democrats, he adds, is a viable tactic.

“Triangulation” – working with the opposition party to enact legislation – became a signature feature of the Clinton White House after the Democrats lost control of Congress. And it led to some of Mr. Clinton’s signature legislative accomplishments, including welfare reform.

Today, the difference is that Trump has Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, but has still failed to pass major legislation. And the clock is ticking. If he can’t pass tax reform – a heavy lift under the best of circumstances – by the end of the year, some observers predict electoral trouble for the Republicans in the November 2018 midterms.

“I think the Republican Party survives if it can prove that it can govern,” says John Feehery, who was the spokesman for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) of Indiana (r.) – accompanied by (from l.) Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) of Michigan, and Sen. Bob Casey (D) of Pennsylvania, – speaks about trade and jobs on Capitol Hill in Washington on Aug. 2, 2017.

But it’s been hard for them to govern just on Republican votes – particularly in the Senate, where the GOP has just a 52-to-48 majority and the rules require 60 votes to pass most bills.

“So for them to prove they can govern, they need Democrats,” Mr. Feehery says.

At the Monitor breakfast Tuesday, Trump’s legislative affairs director made clear that the president doesn’t see himself as a Republican first. When asked about recent characterizations of Trump as the nation’s first “independent president” since the advent of the current two-party system 150 years ago, Short did not push back.

“I think that the president first and foremost – rather than party affiliation – looks at what he can do best for the American people and to fulfill the promises he made on the campaign trail,” Short said.

Short also said he doesn’t see Trump asking himself, “What do I need to do to stay in the good graces of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan,” the top Republicans in the Senate and House. Instead, he repeated, Trump would be asking himself, “What’s in the best interest of the American people?”

“He’ll probably have the same filter for making decisions on elections," Short added.

It is an ominous statement, as the electoral terrain firms up for the 2018 midterms. Already, Trump has gone on the attack against the most vulnerable Republican members of the Senate, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada.

Both senators have not been Trump loyalists, and have felt his wrath.

In addition, Trump has shown little love for Luther Strange, the Alabama Republican appointed to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat. Senator Strange faces a tough runoff in the Republican primary on Sept. 26, and could well be defeated by conservative firebrand Roy Moore, the former chief justice of Alabama. Trump endorsed Strange, the GOP establishment favorite, but has yet to campaign for him in Alabama.

Whoever wins that GOP primary is virtually assured victory in the general election. And if it’s Judge Moore, he may well give Senator McConnell a hard time as the majority leader seeks to rally votes.

But as Short says, Trump doesn’t see pleasing McConnell as his primary task. He’s focused on “what he can do for the American people.”

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