Wounded White House is Uncharacteristically Quiet

Turf war could be brewing on tax overhaul

President Donald Trump, center, pushed hard but came up short on health care. He's now moved on, say senior aides, but the same pitfalls remain for future endeavors. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump, center, pushed hard but came up short on health care. He's now moved on, say senior aides, but the same pitfalls remain for future endeavors. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 28, 2017 at 5:00am

The White House on Monday continued licking the wounds of its first legislative defeat, even as President Donald Trump and his lieutenants gear up for a Supreme Court battle, a government funding fight and a tax overhaul push that will likely be bruising.

Apart from now-familiar contentious moments during the daily press briefing, Monday was eerily quiet at the executive mansion — a departure from the previous two frenetic weeks.

There were no lawmakers ushered in to meet with Trump or Vice President Mike Pence, no announcements about deals with lawmakers, no reporters rushing outside to question departing visitors and no presidential trek up Pennsylvania Avenue to rally the troops.

With the House pulling its repeal and replacement of the 2010 health care law last week, the president and senior White House aides contend they have put that debacle behind them and are preparing for tax overhaul.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the federal tax code “outdated,” and said it makes the United States less competitive on the global stage.

White House officials are evaluating what they could have done differently on the health care push. But, Spicer stressed, they are being careful not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” by ignoring or discarding tactics that worked.

One major difference that is emerging on the fledgling tax push is that Trump administration officials intend to do the heavy lifting. On health care, that was left up to Speaker Paul D. Ryan and other top House Republicans.

“Obviously, we’re driving the train on this,” Spicer said.

But, for the White House, gaining control won’t be that easy.

A tax code overhaul has long been a legislative priority for Ryan, who chaired the Ways and Means Committee before ascending to the speakership.

“That’s an issue I know quite a bit about,” Ryan said in a news conference Friday after pulling the health care bill. “I used to run that committee. I spoke with the president, the Treasury secretary and his economic advisers earlier today about tax reform. So we are going to proceed with tax reform.”

Ryan acknowledged that Republicans’ failure on health care legislation makes tax overhaul more difficult, in large part because the baseline is about a trillion dollars higher absent the GOP’s health care plan, which provided a cut in the deficit. But he said “it does not in any way make it impossible.”

Ryan’s successor atop the taxwriting committee, Texas Republican Kevin Brady, is also unlikely to let his panel get pushed out of the driver’s seat.

And over in the Senate, Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch of Utah said his chamber would take the lead on taxes if efforts stall in the House. “We might have to do it in the Senate. If they’re not going to do what needs to be done, we might have to do it,” Hatch said.

First-term presidents typically enjoy a honeymoon period with Congress and the media during their first months in office. But Trump finds himself grasping for allies as his first Supreme Court nominee inches toward the floor next week and a government shutdown looms at the end of April.

[Cloud Hangs Over Trump-Ryan Partnership After Health Care Bill Fails]

The businessman-turned-politician has gotten a civics crash course since being sworn in on Jan. 20. First he ran afoul of the courts with his executive order banning some Muslims from entering the country.

Then members of his own party declared his first budget dead on arrival and reminded Trump the “power of the purse” is owned by Congress.

Last week’s health care failure provided another checks-and-balances reminder about the fractures in his own party. The president himself acknowledged as much.

The House GOP caucus has “a lot of factions, and there’s been a long history of liking and disliking, even within the Republican Party, long before I got here,” he said in remarks shortly after the bill was pulled. White House aides said Trump is not “writing off” the Freedom Caucus or any other GOP group, though he vented his frustration with its members in a Sunday morning tweet.

This week, the administration is expected to issue executive orders on energy and environmental issues to regain some traction.

But as they do, administration officials appear rocked that the president was unable in his first legislative battle to keep House Republicans together. That might explain his interest in working with the minority party.

Trump suddenly is “absolutely” willing to work with Democrats, said Spicer. The president and senior White House aides have received phone calls from members on both sides of the aisle to seek some resolution on health care, he said.

Trump is more interested in getting Democrats to join Republicans in forming coalitions to pass legislation. However, bipartisanship would require Trump and Democratic leaders like Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer to mend fences after exchanging harsh words recently, Spicer acknowledged.

[Eight Is Enough: Trump’s Tough Search for Gorsuch Democrats]

In short, the White House is grappling with the fact that, as budget director Mick Mulvaney put it Sunday on “Meet the Press,” the Washington “swamp” that candidate Trump vowed to drain is full of quicksand and flocks of hard-to-corral creatures.

“You can blame it on the Freedom Caucus if you want to, but there’s also a lot of moderates [who killed the health care bill]. … So it’s sort of the powers-that-be in Washington that won,” said Mulvaney, a former South Carolina congressman and a founder of the House Freedom Caucus that bucked Trump.

“We’ve moved on to other things,” Mulvaney said. “The president does have things he wants to accomplish. He is not going to sit and wait for Congress to sit around and do the right thing.”

But even as the White House moved beyond health care, the administration sent a new message to the opposition party.

“I don’t think it’s dead,” Spicer said of the health care push. If Democrats want to work on a bill that will “increase choice and drive down costs,” he said, “we’re willing to do that.”

Lindsey McPherson and Alan Ota contributed to this report.