President Donald Trump and White House officials, with their modest response to school shootings and in other recent remarks, have shelved bold demands of Congress for asks rooted more in the art of the possible.
The president started 2018 by pushing members of both parties to swing for the fences on a sweeping immigration deal, even offering them political cover when he told them he would “take all the heat you want to give me.”
During one early January meeting at the White House, Trump said of a bipartisan group working on an immigration compromise he would later help torpedo: “I’ll sign whatever bill they send me.”
Over his first 13 months in office, Trump sought massive legislative deals, but succeeded only with a tax overhaul law that also allowed Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil drilling and ended the Affordable Care Act’s individual insurance mandate — and even then, he got zero Democratic votes.
Since the Senate scuttled a White House overhaul proposal that included provisions favored by administration and congressional immigration hawks, however, Trump and White House officials have shifted gears.
Gone, for now at least, are the president’s demands for broad legislation. In their place are more manageable asks for legislation that would enact incremental changes.
“To attract the very voters for 2018 and 2020 in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio and Michigan and Wisconsin that put him in the presidency in the first place, Republicans and his staff would have to do two things,” one Republican source said.
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“The first is change this president’s behavior, which is turning off voters in those very places. But that ain’t happening,” the source said. “And the second is pass major legislation geared to those voters. But, c’mon, you’re just not going to pass legislation in 2018. My sense is the White House understands that now. And, trust me, Republicans on the Hill have understood that for some time now.”
Scaling back on guns
The most glaring example is the White House’s response to a recent string of deadly school gun massacres, spurred by the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting that left 17 students and teachers dead and others badly injured.
Trump publicly embraced bold ideas with his signature gusto, including raising to 21 the age at which individuals can purchase AR-15s and similar assault weapons.
In one meeting with lawmakers, he flirted with the notion of a national ban on assault weapons. And during that same Feb. 28 White House session, which aides said Trump insisted be broadcast live on television news networks, the president urged lawmakers to pursue a broad bill on background checks with some gun control provisions included.
“Hopefully we can put … ideas in a very bipartisan bill,” he told members that day. “It would be so beautiful to have one bill that everybody could support as opposed to, you know, 15 bills — everybody has got their own bill.”
But when it came time to unveil the president’s legislative priorities for combating school shootings, the president and his team opted for smaller bites at the legislative apple.
“Look, right now, the president’s primary focus is on pushing through things that we know have broad bipartisan support or things that we can do from an administrative perspective that we can do immediately,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said of that plan.
In it, however, the president shed his demand for a comprehensive bill. Trump merely asked lawmakers to send him two bills — one establishing federal grant programs for things like school threat assessments and another making modest changes to the federal background system used in many firearms transactions.
The House on Wednesday passed a measure, 407-10, that would authorize $50 million in grant funding for schools to conduct training to prevent student violence, set up anonymous reporting systems for threats and implement other safety protocols.
Go big, go home
White House officials in recent days have also been eager to avoid sinking work on an omnibus spending bill that would avert another government shutdown and fund the government for the remainder of fiscal 2018.
Aides have declined to comment when asked if Trump would scuttle any spending measure that proposes federal funds for a New York-New Jersey tunnel he has long opposed or excludes monies for his proposed southern border wall, saying they don’t want to interfere in ongoing negotiations.
The president himself on Tuesday, while viewing eight prototypes of the possible border barrier in Southern California, appeared to want to avoid creating more confusion on Capitol Hill.
He did not rule out vetoing the omnibus bill unless it contains wall funding — but he chose to avoid issuing a veto threat. Instead, according to a pool report, he dropped one of his confusion-spawning lines: “We’re going to see.”
There was even confusion Wednesday about whether the president and his team would support a deal that secured three years of border wall funding in exchange for a three-year extension of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that shields nearly 700,000 undocumented people from deportation.
White House aides scrambled to craft a response shooting down a Washington Post report that Trump is open to the “three-for-three” proposal. “We have never stopped working to negotiate an immigration reform package that addresses DACA, stops illegal immigration and secures and modernizes our legal immigration system,” spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement that was followed by additional reports Trump supports the idea.
But aides would not rule out Trump supporting some kind of DACA-wall deal that would be temporary and attached to a coming spending bill. “If there were a deal cut and that could be added to the omnibus we would welcome that,” Shah told reporters on Air Force One, according to a pool report.
Perhaps the apparent strategic shift is why Trump has twice in public remarks recently suggested Republicans should aim for another round of tax cuts — which they could do with 51 votes in the Senate should they craft a new budget resolution containing the instructions for the budget reconciliation process.
“Kevin, are we going for an additional tax cut, I understand? He’s the king of those tax cuts,” a lighthearted Trump told House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady during an event honoring Brady’s home-state World Series Champion Houston Astros. “Yeah, we’re going to do a phase two. I’m hearing that. … We’re actually very serious about that, Kevin.”
But GOP leaders have shown little interest in a budget resolution, despite Trump’s public prodding for another tax bill as a companion to his lone legislative trophy.
Perhaps that’s why the White House suddenly appears to agree with analyst Stan Collender’s prediction that “Congress and the White House aren’t going to accomplish much of anything significant this year.”