Congressional Republicans are hoping for a message of unity and focus from Donald Trump in his first appearance before them as president.
Trump was to speak Thursday to House and Senate GOP lawmakers at their annual policy retreat. Despite a rocky start to his administration, many lawmakers are optimistic about delivering change in a new era of GOP control over Washington.
They would like to see a Trump committed to their agenda and results, not a president who veers off course into conspiracy theories about voter fraud or who keeps litigating the size of his inaugural crowds.
Before Trump’s appearance, House Speaker Paul Ryan sketched out an ambitious agenda to lawmakers that includes sending Trump a health care repeal bill by March and a rewrite of tax laws by summer’s end.
Also in the first 200 days Congress intends to confront paying for Trump’s newly announced border wall, which Ryan confirmed could cost $8 billion to $14 billion, and will work on a public works bill that Trump requested be added to a crowded agenda.
“I’m just so excited we finally have a chance to do this because we have the House and the Senate and a president who is with us,” Ryan told MSNBC on Wednesday about plans to overhaul the tax system, eliminating what critics say are loopholes and lowering corporate rates to 20 percent or even the 15 percent sought by Trump.
“If you can clean up the cesspool of the tax code and give us a pro-growth tax code, that is how you grow the economy, that is how you take power and money out of Washington and give it back to the people,” he said.
Lawmakers were generally enthusiastic to see Trump take quick action on immigration, oil pipelines and other issues via executive order, even though they criticized Barack Obama for overusing such administrative tools when he was president. This time, Republican lawmakers justify it by saying Trump, in many cases, is undoing what Obama did.
Yet there were signs that Congress might not easily go along with fronting the money for Trump’s border plan, which he continues to insist Mexico will ultimately pay for, though without explaining how.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., would not commit to approving the billions Trump is seeking.
“Look, I haven’t seen cost estimates, I don’t know what exactly he’s talking about,” Gardner told CNN on Thursday. He said making good on border security was “an issue of trust with the American people.”
For the GOP conference, Trump was visiting a city that he has singled out and criticized for supposed voter fraud. And the mayor has pledged to protect immigrants who are in the country illegally, in face of Trump’s crackdown on “sanctuary cities.”
Still, said GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, “People are more optimistic, the stock market’s rising, companies are deciding to build, folks look at him approving the Keystone XL pipeline. He said he wanted to create jobs. I think there’s a sense that he’s working hard to create jobs and I think that’s incredibly positive.”
As for Trump’s fixation on supposed illegal voting by 3 million to 5 million people, which is untrue, and the attendance at his inauguration: “Those are distractions, and it’s dwelled upon. I particularly don’t care about it,” Cassidy said.
Most Republicans are taking Cassidy’s approach of playing down the distractions. But others said there was real concern that Trump could be the GOP’s own worst enemy at the very moment they’ve seized full control of Washington and believe they have a mandate to usher in sweeping change, starting with repealing and replacing Obama’s health care law.
Lawmakers also were to hear from Vice President Mike Pence and British Prime Minister Theresa May. Lawmakers said it was a chance to showcase the relationship with Britain in the visit from May, who vaulted to power as a result of the surprise vote to leave the European Union; many saw that as a precursor to Trump’s own victory.
Her speech was coming on the same day when Trump was expected to sign executive orders starting work on bilateral trade deals to take the place of the sweeping multilateral Asia-Pacific pact negotiated under the Obama administration, which Trump announced the U.S. is discarding.