Does Congress need the president to take the lead?

During the shutdown, President Trump kept an unusually low profile – and the hands-off approach seemed to work. But can a polarized Congress move forward on an issue like immigration without clearer direction from the president?

Carolyn Kaster/AP
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders talks to media outside the White House in Washington during a government shutdown , Monday, Jan. 22, 2018.

Ironically, President Trump – a dealmaker in his past life – was nowhere to be seen when the deal to reopen the government was struck.

Mr. Trump had spent the weekend holed up in the White House, talking with friends, aides, and key Republican lawmakers, watching his surrogates speak for him on television, and perhaps most important, steering clear of top Democrats. Even his Twitter account stayed on message.

This was all by design, stage-managed by advisers who sought to prevent the chaos of the past few weeks from spilling over into the high-stakes arena of a partial government shutdown.

The gambit worked. Democratic leaders quickly concluded that Trump wasn’t going to address the plight of Dreamers – unauthorized immigrants brought to the US as children – as part of a short-term spending bill, and so most Democrats voted to reopen the government. In exchange, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky pledged to take up immigration issues, including Dreamers, by early February.

The president’s defenders say Trump’s hands-off approach was, in fact, in keeping with his past as a businessman. He was doing what CEOs are supposed to do: delegate.

Still, it’s unusual for a president to remain essentially on the sidelines throughout such a big battle in Washington. And Trump’s relative absence from the debate could have ongoing implications, as Congress continues to wrestle with hot-button issues such as immigration.

“It’s the president’s job to be part of the conversation, particularly when there are thorny problems that require negotiation between the parties,” says David Redlawsk, a political scientist at the University of Delaware. “The normal presidential administration has the power to persuade, to bring people together. Lyndon Johnson was especially well known for doing this.”

Of course, Trump is not a “normal” president, elected precisely because enough Americans in enough states wanted someone who would break the mold. And it may be hard for Trump to sit quietly by during the next big showdown with Democrats in Congress. As one who clearly enjoys being the center of attention, Trump was reportedly champing at the bit all weekend.

But for now, the president can learn important lessons from the shutdown showdown.

“There’s no question that Trump is still learning how to govern,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “In this instance he was smart to let his lieutenants – in this case, Senator McConnell and [House Speaker Paul] Ryan – work it out themselves, while saying essentially, I’m not giving in on Dreamers.”

‘He needs to be clearer about what it is he wants’

Illegal immigration was a central issue for Trump in the 2016 presidential election, and “Republicans on Capitol Hill are willing to fight for him and do what he wants,” Mr. O’Connell says. “But he needs to be clearer about what it is he wants.”

After the Senate voted to fund the government for three more weeks, a group of six conservative Republican senators met with Trump at the White House to discuss immigration. Trump also met with two Democratic senators from red states, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Doug Jones of Alabama.

The two meetings showed that Trump is keen to hold onto the GOP base, as well as sound out potentially persuadable Democrats, as he moves forward on this divisive issue. The White House has stated that any solution needs to cover four main pillars: the Dreamers – the 700,000 unauthorized immigrants protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which was originally set to expire on March 5 before a federal judge issued a stay; chain migration, in which legal immigrants can sponsor family members for US immigration; the diversity visa lottery; and border security.

But the negotiations have been complicated by the fact that Trump himself has been all over the map on immigration. One day he’s telling lawmakers in an unusual televised meeting at the White House that he wants a “bill of love” to protect Dreamers. Two days later, he’s using vulgar language to complain about immigrants from some of the world’s poorest countries as he rejects a bipartisan plan on immigration that senators have brought him.

On Capitol Hill, both Republicans and Democrats have been left scratching their heads.

“At some point it would be helpful if the president said, ‘This is what I’m for, this is what I will sign,’ ” Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, the majority whip, told reporters Monday.

To presidential observers, Trump’s vagueness on what exactly he wants from immigration reform isn’t surprising. It points to his newness to politics and government, and his apparent reluctance to dig into the details of policy. But at a time of growing polarization and dysfunction in Congress, it could have a significant impact on the ability of lawmakers to make progress.

“Since the days of Woodrow Wilson, the president has been chief legislator as well as chief executive,” says former Senate historian Don Ritchie. “If the president doesn’t provide leadership, then you have sort of anarchy in Congress on these issues.” 

The resurgence of Congress

Of course, there are Democrats who say that President Barack Obama was aloof from the process, unwilling to roll up his sleeves and forge deals. Each president brings his own skill set to the job.

But with Trump, whose adherence to ideology can seem loose at times, the issue could be more acute.

“There is a school of thought that suggests what we’re watching will be, in a sense, the resurgence of Congress, with a president who abdicates the kinds of things that modern presidents have done,” says Mr. Redlawsk.

Back in the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich was the Republican speaker of the House and doing battle with President Bill Clinton, Speaker Gingrich used to argue that Congress was meant to be the primary branch of government. Its duties and powers, after all, are laid out first in the Constitution, before those of the executive branch.

In the modern era, Congress has delegated massive authority to presidents – though some in the Senate are expressing hope that their chamber can help with the heavy lifting on immigration through bipartisan problem-solving.

Sen. Chris Coons (D) of Delaware put it this way Tuesday on MSNBC: “If [Trump] can just let the Senate be the Senate, let us work together for two weeks and find a solution, I think in the end, he might be on the path to signing into law something that gets the border security investment that he wants and he ran on, and a solution to the DACA problem that he says he also wants.”

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

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