One Republican senator wants President Trump to light a fire under his colleagues. Another wants clarity on his policy priorities. A third is interested in hearing about tax reform and health care while a fourth would prefer that Trump sticks to just taxes.
When Trump arrives on Capitol Hill for his first visit as president to the Republican senators’ weekly policy luncheon Tuesday, he will come face to face with dozens of GOP senators eager to hear him address an assortment of matters.
While GOP aides and senators predicted Monday that Trump’s visit would center mostly on the ongoing effort to rewrite the nation’s tax laws, the broad array of topics on their mind, coupled with the president’s penchant for suddenly veering from one subject to another, could open the door to an unpredictable afternoon.
The difficult relationship between Trump and Republican senators adds another layer of uncertainty. Trump has criticized Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sharply for not repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. Republican senators have also thrown some rhetorical elbows at the president.
“I want him to tell us to do our job,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a Trump ally who, like the president, has openly voiced his frustration that a handful of Republican senators sank the repeal-and-replace effort. He anticipated the president would argue that the tax- reform push is “bigger than tax,” in that it marked a chance for Republicans to prove they can govern, among other things.
When Trump addresses the luncheon the Republican senators attend each Tuesday afternoon in a room near the Senate chamber, “it’s important for him to convey to us the things that he thinks are priorities, and not only with respect to the tax bill, but some of the other things that we are currently working on,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the third-ranking Republican senator.
One of the other things Republicans are wrestling with is health care. Trump’s decision to end federal subsidies to help offset lower-income Americans’ coverage costs led a bipartisan coalition of senators to offer a compromise bill that would authorize those funds. In exchange, states would have broader leeway in regulating coverage under the ACA.
Trump, who phoned Democratic and Republican lawmakers this month to push them to make a deal, has sent mixed signals on the plan, seeming to support it before backing away.
White House officials are urging Senate Republicans to move the bill to the right, by including provisions offering retroactive relief from the ACA’s insurance mandates for individuals and certain employers, according to people briefed on the talks.
“The White House has the ball right now,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the Republican senator who took the lead on negotiating the bipartisan package. “They’ve made some suggestions publicly about what they’d like to see in the bill. I’m for all of those things. The question is whether they can persuade Democratic senators to agree to that.”
But Alexander, who said that an analysis of his plan by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office could be released as early as Tuesday, wasn’t expecting to hear Trump sketch out his latest thinking on the framework during lunch. In his view, that would be a good thing. “I’d like for the president to focus on tax reform,” he said.
Others, however, were eager to hear Trump talk health care.
“I’d like to hear him reinforce the movement to get something done” on health care, said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who supports the deal Alexander reached with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
Looming over the luncheon are the mutual hostilities between Trump and Republican senators. On Twitter and in remarks before television cameras, Trump has slammed McConnell and singled out other senators for attacks.
GOP senators have also landed their own blows.
McConnell, for instance, has said that Trump’s limited experience in politics created “excessive expectations” for passing landmark legislation. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has warned that Trump’s combative behavior has put the United States “on the path to World War III.”
But lately, both sides appear to be determined to move past their differences and project more harmony. Trump and McConnell sat down for lunch at the White House last Monday and came out for a 40-minute joint news conference afterward. They tried to play down past signs of tension as they looked ahead to their next big legislative target: tax reform.
Republicans are trying to forge ahead in their effort to usher in a sweeping rewrite of the nation’s tax laws by the end of the year. They took an initial step toward passing a tax bill last week, when the Senate passed a budget resolution allowing them to pursue the tax plan without needing any Democratic votes.
They didn’t need any Democratic votes to undo the ACA. That effort still failed because of disagreements among Republican senators. Brewing disputes over tax policy threaten to disrupt if not defeat the tax endeavor in a similar way.
Passing a bill could rest on more unpredictable GOP senators, like Susan Collins of Maine, one of three Republicans who voted against the ACA repeal bill in July.
“I’m hoping to hear more about his plans on tax reform, with more detail in it,” she said of Trump.