President Trump and Republican leaders presented a unified front at the White House Tuesday amid growing doubt over the president’s ability to pass his agenda on Capitol Hill.
Trump called the meeting to find a way to restart his stalled agenda, which has backed up behind an impasse in the Senate over healthcare reform.
Trump’s bold plans to rewrite the tax code and spur billions of dollars in infrastructure investment are stuck in limbo while lawmakers squabble over healthcare subsidies for low-income Americans and the future of Medicaid.
Senators had hoped to put together a draft of healthcare reform legislation over the Memorial Day recess but instead were only given a broad PowerPoint presentation outlining basic concepts to review over lunch Tuesday.
Even so, Trump struck an optimistic tone as he sat down with Senate Majority Leader (R-Ky.) and Speaker (R-Wis.), touting House passage of healthcare legislation and predicting the Senate “will follow suit and get a bill across the finish line this summer.”
The president tried to reset the tone of the healthcare debate by praising the House bill as a good “concept,” contradicting the sharp criticisms that various Senate Republicans have aimed at the bill.
Once the doors were closed to the public, Trump asked McConnell and his deputy, Senate Majority Whip (R-Texas), for an update on the healthcare debate, according to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who also attended the meeting.
Senate Republicans are continuing to work on their own version of healthcare reform, and while they have pledged their commitment to passing a bill, there’s growing doubt that they will be able to bring together at least 50 members of their 52-person conference.
Sen. (R-S.C.) told reporters earlier in the day: “We’re stuck. We can’t get there from here,” and suggested his colleagues hold an up-or-down vote on healthcare in the next few weeks and then move on to tax reform.
Asked by reporters after the meeting whether the Senate could pass a healthcare bill by the July 4 recess, McCarthy replied, “Not to my knowledge do we have a date set.”
Trump and his congressional allies discussed the news that Anthem, a major health insurer, is pulling out of the ObamaCare marketplace in Ohio, leaving about 20 counties without an insurer willing to sell health plans on the government-sponsored exchange next year.
Trump also pushed his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, something Congress declined to fund in April when it passed its spending bill for the rest of fiscal 2017.
The president added a new twist to it by floating the idea of building solar panels into the wall to provide a renewable energy source, according to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who was also at the meeting.
Returning to the Capitol, McConnell, who has cautioned Trump in recent weeks about veering off script and spending too much time on Twitter, praised the meeting.
“We had a very good discussion about all the issues we’re dealing with these days,” he said, declining to answer questions about healthcare or former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony scheduled for Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Comey’s appearance in the Senate later this week is highly anticipated and will be carried live by several television networks.
It threatens to add to what Marc Short, Trump’s director of legislative affairs, has called a distraction that “detracts from our legislative agenda.”
McCarthy, however, told reporters that Comey did not come up for discussion with Trump.
While Trump struck a positive tone ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, GOP leaders know he has grown increasingly frustrated with their lack of action on big-ticket items.
Last week he urged lawmakers to scrap the Senate filibuster to speed action on healthcare and tax reform.
“We need to get some legislative accomplishments,” Cornyn acknowledged to reporters before heading to the White House.
Republican senators who attended a lengthy healthcare discussion over lunch earlier in the day said it’s clear the party remains starkly divided over questions such as how to subsidize the healthcare coverage of low-income families and cut the cost of Medicaid.
“We are all cautiously optimistic; that’s the best I can do for you. We want to get this done. It’s a heavy lift,” said Sen. (R-Idaho) after the meeting.
Republicans can’t move on tax reform until they finish the healthcare debate because the budget reconciliation vehicle they want to use to rewrite the tax code with 51 votes can’t move until they either pass or scrap the healthcare reform bill.
Trump’s ambitious proposal to spur hundreds of billions of dollars in new infrastructure investment also hit a roadblock Tuesday when Senate Democrats announced they would not support it because it relies too much on private financing.
Senate Democratic Leader (N.Y.) said the plan would only incentivize the construction of toll roads, while underfunding schools and sewers and leaving out rural areas where new highways are less profitable.
“The bottom line is an investment bank infrastructure plan like the one the president is proposing is a sure loser here in Congress,” he said on the Senate floor.
Another looming headache for the administration and GOP leaders in Congress is the need to increase the federal debt ceiling by the fall.
Conservatives are demanding that any increase in federal borrowing authority be accompanied by spending cuts, but Democrats are vowing to block any such legislation.
White House officials said this week they want Congress to raise the debt ceiling before lawmakers depart for the August recess.
The issue was briefly discussed during Tuesday’s meeting, which was attended by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
GOP leaders came away from the gathering saying that Mnuchin would be the point person on debt talks, an interesting development given that the Treasury secretary has called for a clean debt hike — a move that surely would anger fiscal conservatives.
“I think Steve Mnuchin is ultimately the person who is going to lead those conversations,” said Scalise. “We’re going to have to see what he says about the timing, and then the leaders are going to have further discussion on that.”
Scalise disputed the narrative that Trump’s agenda has hit a brick wall.
“I think you’re seeing some very good movement on this Republican agenda to get the economy back on track, and what we talked about today were ways that we can continue to get a health care bill ultimately put on President Trump’s desk and focus on cutting taxes to create jobs and get the economy moving,” Scalise told reporters.
“You’re seeing very good progress on all of those fronts.”