The Marine Band played festive Christmas classics. Republican members snapped selfies on the stairs White House’s South Portico. And they gave President Donald Trump a hearty cheer as he joined them.
Trump and GOP lawmakers celebrated a rare legislative victory on Wednesday after Congress sent a tax overhaul bill to his desk. Meanwhile, Democratic congressional leaders — despite their tough talk — just might hand the president another one by week’s end. Especially if history is any indication.
GOP members, like House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, hugged each other and invited guests on a chilly late-December afternoon as butlers brought out a chrome dispenser filled with a warm beverage they sipped after what was billed as a “bill passage event.” (The tax measure has yet to be delivered to the White House, but aides say the president will sign it in the coming days.)
The president was in a celebratory mood, declaring — without supporting data — that he and GOP members “broke every record” during his first year in office. He called the tax bill — again bending history — the “largest” tax cut in U.S. history. (PolitiFact, a nonpartisan fact-checking outfit, has concluded this about Trump’s claim: “We rate the statement False.”)
Lawmakers Praise Trump in Rose Garden Tax Bill Celebration
By handing him his first major legislative victory, Trump used his 2016 campaign slogan to contend he and GOP lawmakers are “making America great again.” Aides say it was the president’s idea to push for passage before Christmas and dub the bill a gift to middle-class Americans. Vice President Mike Pence carried on that theme as he spoke outside the executive mansion with this message: “Merry Christmas, America.”
But the day also revealed anew how the rush to the airport for the annual Christmas-New Years recess can make for strange bedfellows in the city the president derisively calls “The Swamp.”
A few hours before the South Lawn celebration, Trump hammered Democrats for voting in unison against the tax measure.
“Unfortunately, the Democrats don't like to see tax cutting, they like to see tax increases,” he said during a midday Cabinet meeting. “And they like to complain, but they don't get it done, unfortunately. But they complain a lot.” That followed a morning tweet in which he claimed that Democrats “only demean” rather than work with him.
The Tax Cuts are so large and so meaningful, and yet the Fake News is working overtime to follow the lead of their friends, the defeated Dems, and only demean. This is truly a case where the results will speak for themselves, starting very soon. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2017
Yet on Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders sent mixed signals on whether they would hand the president a second victory by supplying enough votes on a year-end bill to keep federal agencies operating over the Christmas weekend and through mid-January.
“It isn’t up to us to fund the government. It’s up to them. We have never supported shutting down the government,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi during a press conference about renewing funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program.
But as recently as Dec. 7, Pelosi had vowed that Democrats would insist her caucus would withhold its support for any December spending package unless Republicans and Trump addressed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that the president has put in motion to be nixed.
“We will not leave here without a DACA fix,” Pelosi said told reporters that day. Fifteen days later, the prognosis for that fix is unclear, and Democrats will be needed at least in the Senate to pass any year-end measure.
Pelosi on Wednesday afternoon urged her members to vote against the short-term continuing resolution she expects Republicans to bring to the floor if it does not address Democratic priorities.
The California Democrat and Senate Democrats want domestic and national security programs to be funded at the same level. She wrote that they also are insisting on some kind of solution for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. Until they get those assurances, she wrote in a Dear Colleague letter, “We continue to urge a strong NO on the Continuing Resolution.”
Despite Pelosi’s call for a no vote, other Democrats’ comments suggest the party is far from holding firm, which would hand the GOP and Trump a black eye by forcing a government shutdown over the holidays.
History suggests Democrats will cooperate on the spending bill and spare the GOP the embarrassment of a shutdown.
“Depends on what the whole package is,” House Appropriations ranking member Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said when asked if Democrats would help Republicans pass a clean CR, not ruling out supporting the final product.
And Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., did not rule out providing votes on a continuing resolution.
“We’re trying to get a good a deal as possible,” Schumer said when asked if Democrats would insist another priority is taken care of this week: reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Why back down?
“Democrats seem to fear the outside chance that they would be held responsible for a shutdown over the holidays,” said Steve Bell, a former senior Senate staffer. “They also seem worried that Donald Trump would be able to pin it on them. … They know he would go all out — on social media and in front of the TV cameras — to blame the whole thing on them.
“Nancy Pelosi, by doing this, is siding with the portion of her caucus that doesn’t want to be left holding the bag over a shutdown,” said Bell, now with the Bipartisan Policy Center. “My sense is they have been assured there is a DACA fix to be had next year.”
Another reason for Democratic leaders to follow their own past precedent by helping Republican leaders avert a shutdown: “Look, Democrats like government and civil servants,” said Elaine Kamarck, a former Clinton White House official. “Democrats don’t want to see civil servants not getting paid at Christmas.
“Nobody wins in a government shutdown,” said Kamarck, now with the Brookings Institution. “I think the days of the shutdown as a political weapon are over.”
Minutes before the duo Trump calls “Chuck and Nancy” appeared to slam the Republican tax bill, senior administration officials — all with wide smiles — briefed reporters at the White house on the tax measure. And they all heaped praise on the president.
And it wasn’t just White House officials and GOP lawmakers who were in a celebratory mood after Trump’s first major legislative accomplishment.
“This is a huge win for the president, congressional Republicans and their allies, but — more than that — it is a victory for cash-strapped middle class families,” said Michael Steel, a GOP strategist who worked for Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign and former Speaker John A. Boehner.
“By lowering tax rates, expanding the standard deduction, and expanding the child tax credit, this law will put more money in people’s paychecks,” Steel said. “By cutting the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world, it will create more jobs and increase wages. And, by repealing the unpopular individual mandate in ObamaCare, it fulfills a long-held promise to voters.”
Democratic members and nonpartisan economists, however, warn the GOP plan likely will drive up the deficit while mostly benefiting the wealthiest Americans and large companies. Republicans were in no mood, however, to discuss those topics.
Trump’s triumphant mood also was evident in a statement the White House issued under his name minutes after the House sent him the legislation.
“I promised the American people a big, beautiful tax cut for Christmas,” Trump said. “With final passage of this legislation, that is exactly what they are getting.”
Lindsey McPherson and Sandhya Raman contributed to this report.