Republicans left President Donald Trump’s speech Tuesday heartened by his tone, pleased he largely stuck to party positions and relieved there were no embarrassing moments. But they were also confused about the policy specifics the president wants — and possibly more importantly, how he will pay for any of it.
“He was silent on the details that I think will be very very important to legislative remedy,” said Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.). “We need more definition and detail from the executive branch.”
“There are divisions inside the Republican conference, and you really need the presidential leadership to cast the deciding vote,” added Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican of Oklahoma.
Trump’s team said the speech, which promised ambitious spending on the military, a border wall, a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, a better health care system and tax cuts — while not increasing the deficit — was more of a “top-line, visionary one,” as one administration official said. Legislation will be hashed out in private sessions at the White House and on Capitol Hill, and Trump’s aides are still wrangling over what specifics the president should endorse.
Trump’s staff summoned a number of top lawmakers to the White House Wednesday to talk about health care, and the president is expected to offer more specifics in the coming months as his team studies individual proposals, administration officials say.
“It would have been very ineffective had you been involved in some kind of long, detailed step-by-step laundry list,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a top surrogate. “I would have been appalled if he’d stood there with some laundry list that nobody in America understood and talked on and on. I think he will go out there and give speeches to explain all of this.”
Gingrich and others emerged clapping and cheering at the more subdued tone from Trump. But there seemed to be not much more understanding of his policy preferences than there was Tuesday morning.
“He said enough that he didn’t rule anything in or out,” one senior GOP aide aide. “He didn’t alienate anybody. We will see what he says next.”
House leaders, for example, believed Trump effectively endorsed their plan to come up with new refundable tax credits to replace Obamacare’s subsidies. The mere mention of tax credits was enough to set off cheers in the House leadership suites.
But some conservatives and some senators said they didn’t believe Trump made a firm commitment to refundable tax credits. “No,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a key GOP negotiator on Obamacare, when asked if he thought Trump committed to Ryan’s plan. But Alexander added, “I saw Paul Ryan nodding his head pretty vigorously. So he may have thought so.”
The same dynamic played out on Medicaid: Republican leaders believed Trump backed their proposal to scale back the program under Obamacare. But lawmakers on the other side of the issue were similarly enthused by Trump’s vague promise to help people on Medicaid. It’s a key point of contention in the Senate, where a number of lawmakers are angling to oppose anything that doesn’t keep their low-income constituents on the insurance rolls.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) suggested that more clarity from the commander-in-chief could help straighten out any confusion. In the House, members of the health, education and labor committee met Wednesday morning to discuss a bill they expected to be about 100 pages, one person familiar with the meeting said. The goal is to get the bill out of the House by April 6, this person said, but it remains unclear how much conflict there will be with a Senate bill. Many of the specifics are not written.
“It may be that you have a Senate version and a House version that are really far apart that the most effective thing that can happen is the president weighing in,” Murkowski said. “Who knows?”
Members of the Ways and Means Committee interpreted Trump’s comments about levying assessments on imports in different ways. Tax Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said he was satisfied when Trump said “when foreign companies ship their products into America, we charge them almost nothing.” He saw it as a nod to his and Ryan’s tax reform proposal to hike taxes on imports, a controversial idea that has divided Congress and the White House.
Ryan’s team was also pleased.
“You’re never going to hear” the president say ‘border adjustability,’” Brady said in an interview Wednesday. “He will tell you himself: he does not like that phrase. So you can forget waiting to hear that…. [But] He described it perfectly… I am confident border adjustability is going to be in this final tax package.”
But Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), another member of the tax-writing panel who opposes Ryan’s idea, wasn’t sure Trump’s remarks signaled he was warming to the border adjustment proposal. Other GOP aides said they shared his view.
“I’m not sure… I think his comments are — I think it’s too early to say,” Renacci said. “I have not heard that he is going to support the border adjustment.”
Trump also talked immigration reform, changes to the education system and paid family leave — all daunting undertakings if the president and Congress manage to ever get to them. Trump was similarly vague on those topics.
Democrats see infrastructure as the prime opportunity to collaborate with Trump, but said they needed more detail before they can be pursue something.
“Talking the talk is not doing the job or helping a single person in the middle class. He needs to start walking the walk,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) of Trump’s vagaries.
Democratic leaders want to pay for an infrastructure package with taxpayer dollars and financing it by closing tax loopholes. But GOP Republicans are likely to oppose that approach. A small number of senators in both parties, such as Alexander and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), support user fees to pay for new transportation projects. But conservatives would rather slash existing spending they view as unnecessary to pay for big projects.
Trump did not come down on one side or the other.
“I want to have it offset [with spending cuts] and that’s going to be the big job,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. “It’s going to be the most difficult thing for [Trump]. That and defense are going to require him to come up with money.”
Sanford said he was concerned about the cost of Trump’s plans and wanted to hear how the White House intends to cut the budget to pay for them. Trump has proposed $54 billion in additional defense spending, without laying out offsetting reductions.
“If President Obama had come out with the same list and not saying how he’d pay for it, the headlines would be lit up today,” Sanford said. “We just need to know a little more.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), however, said the main imperative for Trump in his first address to Congress was to be “aspirational,” not delve into policy weeds.
“Ultimately we’ll be more successful with strong presidential leadership,” Corker said. “And I think that’s what he’s going to exercise at the right time.”
Powered by WPeMatico