Donald Trump made a fortune selling developments by making big promises about how his projects would turn out.
Addressing a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, the President used every sales trick in his book — assurances, bluster, and grandiose vision — to sell an agenda that promised to be all things to all Republicans.
The border will be secure. Illegal immigration will be stopped. Highways will be built. Obamacare will be replaced. Everyone will have access to health coverage. Lawmakers in Trump’s party, so often at odds with their president, came out of the Capitol nearly giddy.
“It was a wonderful speech,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, the conservative from Texas.
“I thought it was terrific,” said Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a member of the conservative House Freedom caucus.
“That was a home run,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan.
“He was much more focused, disciplined, and subdued than he’s been recently,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania. “The speech was remarkably uneventful—in a good way!”
But behind Trump’s broad agenda and its glittering reception among Republican lawmakers of all stripes was a thorny fact: his party is divided over many of the details of Trump’s proposals.
On issues from health care to immigration to tax reform, Republican members of Congress have yet to rally around a set of policies Trump has laid out, and so far, the President who wrote The Art of the Deal has been unable to sell them on a unified plan. And while the president’s speech won standing ovations from Republicans and reassured his party, it papered over some of the obstacles Republican lawmakers will face in the coming months.
Trump’s discussion of repealing the Affordable Care Act, the most pressing item on Congress’ agenda, provided the most confusion. During his address, the president vowed to make healthcare accessible through tax credits and said governors should get the resources they need with Medicaid “to make sure no one is left out.”
To Ryan, that was a resounding endorsement of his leading plan, which provides a refundable tax credit for people seeking health insurance. And to moderates, Trump’s statements were a rejection of the plan proposed by conservatives opposing Ryan.
“The argument’s over,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Ryan’s deputy in leadership, “on which way we’re going” over tax credits.
But conservative lawmakers disagreed.
“I don’t believe we heard any specific legislative endorsements,” said Cruz.
“He didn’t say ‘refundable tax credit.’ He said ‘tax credit,’” said Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, a member of the Freedom Caucus. “There’s a world of difference between the two.”
On immigration reform, moderates and Democrats were somewhat heartened by Trump’s call for “real and positive immigration reform,” and Trump’s comments to television reporters before the speech suggesting he might support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
But conservatives oppose a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and say they are confident the President would ultimately take a hardline approach.
“I don’t support amnesty, and anyone who is using the term ‘comprehensive immigration reform’ is using a euphemism for amnesty,” said Rep. Steve King of Iowa. “We are about restoring respect for the law.”
President Trump’s budget outline, which he laid out Monday and referred to in his address, calls for a $54 billion increase in defense spending and offsets in budget cuts elsewhere, but it seems designed to irk everyone and satisfy no one. Military hawks like Arizona Sen. John McCain argued it did not spend enough on the military. And Democrats lined up against the deep cuts to domestic programs. Conservatives argued it doesn’t deal with entitlements like Medicare and Social Security — two programs Trump repeatedly promised not to cut on the campaign trail.
“What we really need to do is start managing the mandatory side of the budget, which is Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security so that we can save them,” said Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, before Trump’s address. “Right now we don’t have a plan in place to save those three.”
“This is not rocket science,” said Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican. “It’s easy to put it off, but at some point in time you’ve got to touch entitlements. You’ve got to reform the system.”
On the campaign trail Trump called for $1 trillion worth of infrastructure improvements. In Tuesday he reiterated his call for spending, citing President Eisenhower’s infrastructure program. “The time has come for a new program of national building,” Trump said, calling for public and private capital spending.
But Republicans and Democrats remain deeply divided over how to pay for such investments, with Democrats calling for direct government investments rather than tax credits and conservative Republicans likely to shy away from massive spending programs.
The White House has yet to lay out any specifics with lawmakers on such construction spending. Members of Congress including Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe and Dent have come away in recent weeks from conversations with White House officials without a clear sense of what the Administration plans to do on the issue.
On all these issues, Republican lawmakers are looking for a stronger message from their salesman-in-chief.
“I think it’d be really helpful for the President to engage as much as possible,” the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, said on Tuesday before Trump’s address. “There’s only one person out of 320 million Americans who can sign a bill into law and that’s the President. It’s helpful to us up here for him to weigh in and I think they’ll do that.”
Republican tussles aside, Trump was greeted with deep animosity from Democrats. Rep. Maxine Waters, Democrat from California, skipped the joint session altogether.
When the President entered the House, half a dozen Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, left their seats on the aisle to avoid shaking his hand. Female Democratic lawmakers wore white in protest.
For Democrats watching Trump seek to repeal the Affordable Care Act, there was a measure of glee in the hours preceding the speech. “The Republican Party is a very divided party and has been for years,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. “It is clear that there was never nor is there now a consensus in the Republican Party and apparently no plan on paper to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”
“Donald Trump is showing himself not to understand how to get anything done,” said Schumer. “It’s amazing in a month how incompetent this administration has been. Incompetence!”
Still, Republicans maintained that Trump’s message was a unifying one. “I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength,” the president said.
Republicans took the message to heart. “I think he reached out to everyone and said let’s move this country forward,” said Republican Rep. John Carter of Texas.
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