By JOHN T. BENNETT And LINDSEY McPHERSON
Republican leaders appeared to learn a few things on health care and about the coming debt ceiling fight during a Tuesday meeting with Donald Trump. But they also discovered how difficult it is to completely avoid the scandals and palace intrigue surrounding the president.
The senior House and Senate GOP lawmakers, for instance, returned to the Capitol with more clarity on whom Trump has tapped to lead the administration’s efforts to avoid a debt default: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. They also got a clear sense of what is the president’s top priority.
“Right now, I think the president’s primarily focused on saving and rescuing families from the perils of Obamacare,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said of the 2010 health care law named after former President Barack Obama.
The leaders did not learn, however, whether the president wants the Senate to finish its version of a health overhaul bill by July 4.
“I think the Senate is working in the right direction to get a health care bill passed out of the Senate that we can ultimately move to the president’s desk,” Scalise said. “That’s our overall goal, and I think they’re making good progress.”
One thing that also seemed unclear: What Mnuchin’s call for a “clean” debt-ceiling measure — meaning one free of federal spending cuts or policy provisions — means for the administration’s negotiating position.
Inside Trump’s circle, his top aides appear split over the shape of debt ceiling legislation. White House Chief Economic Adviser Gary Cohn and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney have said they would consider attaching spending cuts and other GOP-favored provisions. Then there is the Mnuchin camp, which wants a “clean” bill.
Top aides are mum about Trump’s stance.
House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady of Texas was more clear on his: “Washington is starved for budget reform,” he said, adding Republican lawmakers have a variety of ideas for how to accomplish that and he would “love to see that considered as we go forward.”
On Monday evening, White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short told reporters Trump would settle for a package of sizable tax cuts if a more sweeping tax code and rate overhaul package cannot pass both chambers. A day later, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California replied “tax reform” when asked if Trump talked about tax cuts or an actual tax overhaul during the closed-door meeting.
Though the leaders and Trump appeared to have about an hour-long policy discussion, the lawmakers were in the room for several awkward moments related to the ongoing scandals swirling around the White House.
“Jared has actually become much more famous than me — I’m a little upset at that,” Trump said of his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner at the top of the meeting. He once said the same about then-FBI Director James Comey, whom he later fired. Kushner is reportedly a person of interest in the FBI’s ongoing probe of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential race.
Comey’s Thursday testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee did not come up in the conversation, McCarthy said. “None whatsoever,” he said when asked if there was any talk about Comey.
But before the reporters and photographers left, Trump was asked if he has any advice for the former G-Man.
“I wish him good luck,” the president shot back.
Earlier, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked whether Trump plans to watch what could be a day-long hearing featuring Comey. “The president is going to have a very, very busy day,” he said.
Just before the meeting began, the White House sent a veiled message toward Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The Republican leader told reporters he remains sour on the president’s use of Twitter, which in recent days has suggested Qatar — a U.S. ally — is a state-sponsor of terrorism and slammed his own Justice Department.
“I think the same people who are critiquing his use of it now, critiqued it during the election,” Spicer said. “And it turned out pretty well for him then.”
As all of Washington gears up for Comey’s testimony, GOP lawmakers say they are continuing work on the agenda items their leaders discussed with Trump.
“It’s going to happen, because we’re not going to stop until it does happen,” House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady of Texas said when asked what a failure to overhaul the tax code would say about the Republican Party.