Senate Republicans hear from President Donald Trump frequently — on the phone, on the golf course and on Twitter. They will hear from him in person Tuesday when he joins them for lunch at the Capitol.
Perhaps more than recent past presidents, the 45th chief executive lets members know just how he feels about both policy and politics. And frequently, Trump’s public displays of honesty can throw confusion into members’ attempts to reach consensus on legislation that requires his signature.
While Trump is not making the drive up Pennsylvania Avenue just to talk taxes, it will be a big topic on the agenda. To his chagrin, GOP lawmakers are weeks — maybe even months — away from sending him a tax bill, and only if they can hammer out a long list of outstanding differences.
The danger of bringing Trump in during what amounts to the early innings of this kind of legislative process can be captured in one question: Who closes? Even two of baseball’s best relief pitchers, Andrew Miller and Kenley Jansen, are good for only a few innings. So if GOP senators need wrangling in a few weeks or tune out the president, to whom will House and Senate leaders turn to secure the necessary votes?
The president, as he so often does, threw his party yet another curveball Monday morning. He decided to negotiate on that very tax measure via his Twitter account. In doing so, Trump broke with key Republican tax writers on one of the myriad complicated issues that go into the tricky work of writing a tax bill.
The president came out in opposition to a plan from congressional Republicans to lower the threshold for contributions to retirement plans that qualify for a deferred tax. He tweeted there “will be NO change to your 401(k),” adding: “This has always been a great and popular middle class tax break that works, and it stays!”
There will be NO change to your 401(k). This has always been a great and popular middle class tax break that works, and it stays!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 23, 2017
But Republican tax writers say that’s not necessarily the last word on the topic.
Senate Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch on Monday did not rule out revisions to the current 401(k) tax structure despite Trump’s proclamation.
“Everything’s under discussion,” the Utah Republican said, adding that he had not seen that particular tweet from the president.
Hatch said the goal was to produce a draft of the tax legislation within the next two weeks, but said clarity from the White House was necessary.
“We need to know what the president wants to do, try to coordinate with him. So far I’m not quite sure where he’s going,” he said.
The disagreement over the proposal is one of the first public policy discrepancies between the White House and GOP leaders in Congress on the still-developing tax measure. It might come up over lunch Tuesday.
Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, last week said in a statement that the president would make his first appearance at the weekly policy lunch “to press our common agenda and speed a great American recovery.”
There is no shortage of things to discuss, from a still-under-construction tax measure to a government funding bill that’s needed by Dec. 8 to again address the debt ceiling to disaster relief funding to another attempt to rework the health insurance system.
There have been some whispers around Washington that Trump and his unprecedented style are eroding the influence of the office and making its bully pulpit less effective. But could the constant drumbeat of tweets, random comments to reporters about legislative whims, ad-libbed lines during unrelated public remarks and the spectacle of presidential visits to the Capitol give lawmakers a case of Trump fatigue?
“Close, honest coordination between the White House and allies on Capitol Hill is critical to success on important priorities like tax reform,” said Michael Steel, who was a senior adviser for former Speaker John A. Boehner and for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“As long as the president is focused and on-topic, there is no such thing as too much coordination,” Steel said Monday.
One Republican strategist who works closely with members said Trump is “kind of looking for his mojo right now when it comes to Congress and his agenda.”
“He’s kind of lost a little bit of his bite,” said the strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “The president, as we hear every day and see on Twitter, certainly hasn’t lost his bark. So talking straight to members right now couldn’t hurt. … He needs a win on taxes to restore that bite.”
“President Trump looks forward to joining the Senate GOP’s weekly lunch tomorrow,” Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters said Monday. “The lunch will focus on the robust fall legislative priorities, including getting tax reform passed for the American people.”
Even Democratic operatives and former officials warn against expecting Republican lawmakers to simply tune out the president.
“Even Republican senators, who tend to be more independent than members of the House, have to be careful when even thinking of crossing Trump,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “He’s still very popular among Republican voters. And this president knows that’s how he can keep them in check.”
Trump will address Senate Republicans after they handed him a rare win last week by passing a fiscal 2018 budget resolution that includes language allowing an eventual tax bill to be passed with just 51 votes. No Democrat has yet signed on to that still-emerging measure.
That means Trump must walk a tightrope Tuesday, careful not to lose any senators who might be leaning toward voting for the future GOP tax measure.
But while some GOP senators have groused about the president’s tweets and bellicose rhetoric, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Sunday made clear GOP lawmakers need the president just as much as he needs them.
The Kentucky Republican said he will not bring a health care stabilization bill to the floor until he has Trump’s word that he would sign it into law.
“If there’s a need for some kind of interim step here to stabilize the market, we need a bill the president will actually sign,” Trump told CNN. “And I’m not certain yet what the president is looking for here, but I will be happy to bring a bill to the floor if I know President Trump would sign it.”
Asked whether the issue was that Trump seems to have taken multiple positions on the bipartisan plan crafted by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and ranking member Patty Murray of Washington, McConnell replied: “I think he hasn’t made a final decision.”
“When he does, and I know that we’re not just debating it,” the majority leader said, “but actually passing something to be signed, I would be happy to bring it up.”
Niels Lesniewski and Joe Williams contributed to this report.