Two fireplaces outside the House chamber told the story Thursday a few minutes before members streamed in to vote on a sweeping tax bill. Orange embers were still just visible in both beneath scorched logs and ash. For Republicans, what had started with a white-hot visit by President Donald Trump ended with the anti-climactic passage of their tax plan.
But there was nothing anti-climactic a short time earlier in the basement of the Capitol, where House GOP members gather weekly as a group. They scurried in — mostly on time, with a few notable exceptions — for the presidential visit, and many emerged just before noon strikingly giddy about the scene during the president’s roughly 20 minutes of remarks.
Amid a noticeably higher security presence around the Capitol that featured uniformed Capitol Police officers manning makeshift checkpoints, House Republicans stopped to chat with reporters in the tight hallway outside their meeting room with wide smiles. The scene, at times, resembled some combination of Christmas morning and the smitten moments after an enticing first date.
They gushed about Trump’s performance, using words like “charming” and “funny” and “engaging” and “upbeat.”
Rep. Raul R. Labrador, R-Idaho, chose “charming” when asked to describe Trump’s appearance before the GOP conference.
“He’s just funny,” he said. “He knows how to make people feel warm. He’s funny, he’s engaging. That’s why he won the presidency.”
Several GOP members, including Bradley Byrne of Alabama and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, echoed the description of the former reality television star and real estate mogul as “funny” during his remarks at the Capitol. Specifically, they noted how humorous Trump was when describing his negotiations for the release of three UCLA basketball players who were accused of shoplifting in China.
The Capitol often buzzes before big events and major votes. Thursday was no exception.
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows was among those who gave Trump high marks, telling reporters as the president departed the Capitol that he was “unbelievably engaging” — so much so that the North Carolina Republican predicted some GOP members who had been planned to vote against the tax overhaul bill “might have second thoughts,” according to a pool report distributed by the White House.
Several Republicans left the meeting and described Trump as apparently having popped over mostly to let them know how excited he was to move one step closer to both chambers sending him a final tax bill. And, for Trump, there is plenty riding on GOP lawmakers’ efforts; the president has described a package of tax rate cuts and code changes as the keys that would unlock other agenda items, like his desired $1 trillion infrastructure package.
So what was the point in Trump’s second visit to the Capitol in three weeks to rally either the Senate or House GOP caucus?
Simple. Trump loves to win. And though Thursday’s House vote was an incremental one, the president wanted to revel in a rare legislative victory — even if it was a battle in the tax fight and not a final win. And, like during his 12-day Asia swing with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders, Trump appears a big believer that getting others to do his bidding is directly linked to how nice he is to them.
To that end, Meadows told reporters as he headed into the meeting he was confident in a “good vote” later in the day. He acknowledged Trump’s remarks were not intended as the final arm-twisting to secure ample GOP votes.
“We always love a pep talk,” a smiling Meadows said, succinctly summarizing the reason for the stepped-up security and large motorcade that twice shut down traffic along Pennsylvania Avenue on a busy workday in Washington.
But Trump was not the only star on Capitol Hill on what began as a wacky and busy day. Just before his armored limousine rolled onto the Capitol grounds, former Republican vice presidential nominee and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was spotted passing through a sea of reporters in the Senate basement, many of whom were asking about sexual misconduct allegations against Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. She was walking with Sergio Gor, a senior aide to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Later, Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a senior White House adviser, was spotted in the Senate subway after riding the trolley from the Russell Office Building.
But as the sirens from the presidential convoy faded once Trump, Chief of Staff John Kelly and other senior White House officials left the Capitol grounds before the vote, so, too, did the day’s drama.
About an hour later, bells rang signaling the House vote on the tax measure was on.
Democrats shuffled into the chamber quietly. Some arrived early. That group included Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, a member of the Ways and Means Committee that produced the overhaul measure, got off an elevator near the Speaker’s Lobby with their heads down. A few glanced at papers prepared by their staffs. None spoke.
Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas chatted with other Democrats in hushed tones minutes later as they exited the same elevator.
Democrats who spoke with reporters on the way in to vote “no” — and all did so — spoke in tones of resignation about lacking the votes to stop the GOP bill. Some groused about the process and predicted, if made law, the measure would hurt ordinary Americans.
That resignation also was apparent in a rather reserved Speaker’s Lobby. When the vote tally cleared the number needed to pass the bill, Republicans stood and cheered. Yet, hardly any reporter or staffer outside paused their conversations or looked up from their phones.
Minutes later, members hurried out in their usual Thursday habit after the week’s final votes. Some headed to elevators, others to cars idling outside.
Many Republicans wore wide grins and spoke optimistically about their expectation that the Senate would follow suit and set up a conference committee that would hammer out a final version that Trump could sign into law. Democrats wore mostly expressionless as they left, some chatting about the mistrial of Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. Others discussed Thanksgiving plans.
The buzz had started to build around 11 a.m. as Trump’s late-morning visit neared. But by 2 p.m., the House side was eerily quiet.
A reporter rounded a corner into the Speaker’s Lobby a few minutes before the top of the hour. Both the lobby and the House chamber were nearly empty, the drama drained from each. Nearby, those remaining embers in both fireplaces had gone dark.
Lindsey McPherson, Niels Lesniewski and Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.