Politics

GOP Leaders Brought Big League Policy Differences to Trump Speech

Health care, spending top issues in dispute

From left, Sen. Cory Gardner , McConnell Sen. John Thune and Cornyn fielded questions about White House policy on Tuesday after the Senate Policy luncheons. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Hours before President Donald Trump delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress, Republican leaders went about the normal business of the congressional workweek, keeping their scheduled media availabilities and playing down differences among their own members and the administration on big-ticket policy items like health care and government spending levels. 

“I feel at the end of the day, when we get everything done and right, we’re going to be unified on this,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Tuesday morning. The Wisconsin Republican was responding to questions about two top conservatives — House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows and Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker — who announced the previous day they could not support a draft GOP leadership plan to partially repeal and replace the 2010 health care law.

Without the support of those two and the conservatives they represent, and with no Democrats expected to support the plan, the path to passage is practically nonexistent.

“You’re going to have a lot of churning in any legislative product like this. This is a plan that we are all working on together — the House, the Senate, the White House. So there aren’t rival plans here,” Ryan said.

But when asked about Ryan’s comments, Meadows said it’s “not accurate” to say Republicans are all working off the same health care plan.

The hits kept coming. On Ryan’s side of the Capitol, lawmakers on the committees tasked with writing the legislation said they hadn’t even seen the leadership draft that was leaked to the press last Friday. That draft would reduce Medicaid funding, tax employer-provided health care and provide people without insurance tax credits to buy it.

And although lawmakers say the draft has changed since its circulation — the “churning” the speaker referred to — that didn’t stop Meadows and Walker from criticizing it as creating an entitlement they couldn’t support.

They were joined by three Senate colleagues, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, who criticized House GOP leaders’ draft as nothing more than “Obamacare Lite” and said nothing less than a repeal measure modeled on legislation President Barack Obama vetoed in 2016 would earn their vote.

Feel the force

“I think we do have the votes and that we are a force to be reckoned with,” Paul said. The three Senate votes the trio represents would be needed to pass health care legislation that would require only a majority under the budget reconciliation process’ expedited floor procedures.

Paul has sponsored legislation to replace the health care law that aims to de-link insurance coverage from employment and remove minimum coverage mandates, allowing consumers to purchase plans that fit their individual needs. There is companion legislation in the House sponsored by Freedom Caucus member Mark Sanford of South Carolina.

The White House did not provide clarity in advance of the president’s speech. In a pre-address briefing, the president’s staff would not say whether he would sign on to whatever health plan congressional Republicans produce.

Sarah Sanders, the White House principal deputy press secretary, called the effort to craft a replacement plan a “collective thing” between the president, the Health and Human Services Department and Congress. But the White House is “not ready to make that full announcement today,” she said.

Senate GOP leaders will be waiting.

“On the Affordable Care Act, the replacement, it’s going to be essential to have him behind the position that we all coalesce on to get it done,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas told reporters at the GOP leaders’ Tuesday press conference.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Senate Republican leaders scheduled a members-only meeting of their caucus on Wednesday afternoon in the Capitol’s Strom Thurmond room to discuss the health care legislation. The House GOP is likely to follow suit with its own meeting on Thursday. Meadows said a plan for Medicaid would be easier to agree on than refundable tax credits or raising taxes on employer-provided plans.

And that was just health care.

The money game 

Republicans also showed big differences with the White House on Congress’ most basic function: funding the government.

The administration says it wants to boost military spending by $54 billion, and will pay for such an increase by taking aim at domestic spending and as much as one-third of the State Department’s budget.

That provoked Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over spending on the State Department and foreign aid, to tell any reporter who would listen on Tuesday that such a plan was “dead on arrival.”

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also threw cold water on the idea of such deep cuts. Asked at his team’s media availability if he could support them, the Kentucky Republican replied simply, “Probably not,” and added he was personally opposed to cutting the State Department’s budget.

Later in the afternoon, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a prominent foreign policy hawk among Republicans, went to the floor to argue that foreign aid is both effective and a part of the United States’ moral obligation.

“I hope in the weeks to come as we debate the proper role of government and the proper way to fund it, we understand what a critical component foreign aid and the international affairs budget is to the national security and the economic interests and to our identity as a people and as a nation,” he said.

The Republicans’ Budget Committee chairmen, Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming and Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee, also asserted the legislative branch’s role in determining spending levels over the White House’s coming budget.

Enzi made clear Tuesday that while he expects to see an initial “skinny” budget proposal from the Trump administration by March 15, it would be Congress making the budgetary decisions.

“What the White House always sends is suggestions on what they think. The Budget Committee actually does the budget,” he said.

Black, brand new to her position, made similar comments on Tuesday. “We are doing our own budget. The president does his own budget. We’ll see how they match at the end of the day,” she said.

So while Republicans control the executive and legislative branches, that doesn’t mean they are always on the same page, even on a day they were all under the same roof for the president’s big speech.

Lindsey McPherson, Bridget Bowman, Niels Lesniewski, John T. Bennett, Joe Williams, Erin Mershon and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this story.

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