WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — President Donald Trump said Thursday that Speaker Paul Ryan called him the other day and said he’d “never ever seen the Republican Party so united.” Yet on Trump’s key priorities, congressional Republicans are painfully split.
After spending barely 24 hours together at a ritzy resort here in the West Virginia mountains, Senate Republicans bade farewell to their House counterparts on Thursday afternoon with no clear path forward on immigration, infrastructure or how to raise the debt ceiling. House Republicans spent part of the getaway regurgitating long-running gripes with the Senate filibuster.
Trump tried to talk past those differences with a speech promoting Republican solidarity. “There is a great coming-together that I don’t think either party has ever seen for many, many years,” he declared.
But any sense of harmony evaporated in short order, when Trump left without taking any questions from lawmakers that might have provided clarity on the most pressing issues they’re facing. Such Q&A sessions have been standard practice for past presidents appearing at party retreats.
Republicans are united behind Trump politically. But age-old ideological and tactical differences between the House and Senate — and the president’s silence or lack of guidance on how to bridge them — remain a major problem for accomplishing big-ticket items. It’s impossible for the GOP to pass immigration, spending and debt ceiling bills on a partisan basis given internal divides and the party’s razor-thin majority in the Senate.
Retiring Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) likened the party’s efforts to avoid discussing difficult issues to “a dysfunctional family. Dad’s drunk again but we don’t talk about it.”
“DACA, debt ceiling, budget, agreement, omnibus? There aren’t 218 votes on those. Are we united on issues? No. We never are. It’s not going to change now,” Dent said.
Republican leaders believe they can stave off a second government shutdown next week. Even if they do, though, a nasty immigration fight awaits immediately afterward.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) didn’t sugarcoat the fix his party is in. “In all likelihood, no. No, we won’t have a single unified position on that. … We need to find our areas of consensus, but I don’t think it will come out of this three-day” retreat.
Standing shoulder to shoulder at a news conference Thursday, No. 3 Senate Republican John Thune of South Dakota and No. 4 House Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state contradicted each other in real time over how Republicans would deal with Dreamers.
McMorris Rodgers said heightened border security, restrictions on family migration and an end to the diversity visa lottery program were essential to any deal, a statement of support for the president’s framework. But moments earlier, Thune floated the idea of cutting Trump’s four-pronged immigration approach in half: border security in exchange for a path to citizenship.
“My own view is: If we can solve DACA and border security, that may be the best we can hope for,” Thune asked.
Then it was House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows’ turn. “Sen. Thune represents a state that’s a long way from the southern border,” the North Carolina lawmaker retorted, “and so making a suggestion that a ‘two-pillar answer’ is going to get support in the House is a nonstarter.”
McConnell plans to begin a debate on immigration legislation later this month. But the Senate leader said Thursday he didn’t know what the negotiating vehicle would look like. The two chambers can’t even agree on which one would vote first.
House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) was clear he prefers that the Senate take a back seat to the House. He said the Senate’s narrower immigration plan would fail in the House.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) countered that the process is “definitely going to start in the Senate.”
“If it’s done, it’s going to have a narrow focus, DACA and border protection,” Capito said, referring to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program protecting Dreamers from deportation. “We can take a big swing at this. And if we whiff it we’re just going to push it down the road.”
Immigration isn’t the only conundrum.
Republicans also didn’t seem to have a strategy for raising the debt ceiling in the coming weeks; Congress will likely need to extend borrowing authority by the end of February.
And then there’s the latest shutdown threat. Government funding runs dry in a week.
GOP leaders insisted that Congress would at least punt the government funding deadline a few weeks down the road as they strain to negotiate a larger funding agreement with Democrats.
“I don’t think we’ll see a threat [of a] government shutdown again over this subject,” McConnell said. “And so I think there will be a new level of seriousness here trying to resolve these issues.”
But top members of the Trump administration are getting frustrated with the ongoing budget morass. Defense Secretary James Mattis lit into members of Congress at the retreat for failing to provide long-term stability for the military.
“We need to be less divided so that the military can function on a normal, stable basis,” Mattis told Republicans, according to Dent.
Some members were so frustrated with the lack of planning on budget matters that they huddled privately in their own discrete groups during the retreat. Some Freedom Caucus members met with defense hawks to talk about what they could do to end Congress’ continuous cycles of so-called continuing resolutions.
Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan is stalled, too. House Transportation Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) floated the idea of raising the federal gas tax to help fund it and hit a wall of opposition from conservatives.
“That’s something I think you’d get a lot of pushback on,” said Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.). “That’d be hard for us to do.”
Republicans were also at odds over one of Ryan’s top priorities this year: welfare reform, or “workforce development,” as the speaker now calls it. Senate Republicans said they didn’t think it could clear their 60-vote threshold — another sore spot for House Republicans.
For much of the retreat, House members hounded senators to nix the filibuster. But McConnell has made clear he’s not going there.
At one point Thursday, newly elected House Budget Committee Chairman Steve Womack (R-Ark.) used a joint news conference with Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) to blast the Senate for failing to take up House-passed spending bills and making Congress look “foolish.”
“Get us a simple majority vote on funding this government in the Senate,” Womack told reporters.
Perdue stood next Womack smiling, declining to debate his House colleague on yet another division within their party.
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