White House

With Congress back, Trump tells staff he doesn’t want another shutdown

Hill envoy details to-do list, which could face obstacles, including from White House

President Donald Trump has told his staff to avoid a government shutdown, but several obstacles remain to getting spending deals, as well as other legislative priorities. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The White House has an ambitious autumn and winter legislative agenda that includes avoiding another government shutdown and winning approval of a sweeping trade pact — but a key official says legislation aimed at preventing mass shootings is not certain to move this year.

Both chambers returned Monday from a rather bloody August recess in which more than 40 people died during mass shootings in four states. Members of both parties say they want to move some kind of bill aimed at curbing gun violence amid polling that shows large majorities of Republican and Democratic voters want Washington to act. But no plan that could pass the House and Senate — and get President Donald Trump’s signature — has emerged.

While members spent time in their districts and states, the president spent much of August endorsing various ideas. He was initially supportive of beefing up background checks before backing away. Trump and many GOP lawmakers want to focus on addressing mental health problems they see in mass shooters, while Democrats want to make it harder for troubled individuals to legally acquire guns.

“The president, as he assesses the best way ahead, the best set of policy proposals, is really looking for ideas that can make a significant difference, that are meaningful … to making progress here,” said Eric Ueland, director of the White House’s Office of Legislative Affairs. “If and when the president provides direction on the next steps, I’m sure that will be communicated out pretty directly.”

‘Step up’

Ueland and other White House officials bristle when Republicans say they are not sure what Trump would support.

But Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the No. 4 in Senate GOP leadership, made clear Sunday that the president’s shifts are confusing.

“What [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] said this week … is we’re not going to vote on bills on the Senate floor that the president’s not willing to sign,” Blunt told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “The president needs to step up here and set some guidelines for what he would do.”

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Ueland said Trump and his team are deeply engaged.

“The president has had his staff ... sort through all sorts of ideas for him,” he said in an interview on Sept. 6, adding that Trump has been talking “directly” to lawmakers.

Ueland did not lay out a proposal that White House aides were working on. Nor did he say if one was in the works. But he did note that the administration has received input from “across the ideological spectrum, from interested groups on the outside, as well as officeholders, governors and the like.”

Trump has acknowledged conversations with National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, detailing that organization’s worries that any legislation responding to mass shootings would create a “slippery slope” leading to an erosion of gun rights.

One Democratic senator and gun control advocate, Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, said in a statement Monday that he was “still negotiating in good faith to find a bipartisan proposal that will expand checks to cover more commercial sales and save lives.”

“I continue to take the president at his word that he wants the same thing,” he said. “But as each day goes by, it seems more likely that we’re going to find ourselves back in a familiar place where 90 percent of the Americans who want more background checks are going to be disappointed once again.”

Also on the White House list are the annual spending bills, including the measure to keep the Homeland Security Department functioning after it and several others were shuttered earlier this year.

Veteran observers are skeptical the to-do list can get done.

“The weather is changing and getting a little cooler and I think the optimism of bipartisan legislation this fall is starting to cool also, particularly as we narrow in on one year out from the election,” said G. William Hoagland of the Bipartisan Policy Center, who was an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist

Poison pills’

Even on legislation linked to mass shootings, Hoagland said lawmakers will likely encounter many roadblocks.

“I would expect there will be efforts made to attach some of these hot-ticket items to the appropriation bills,” he said. “But given the agreement reached in the recent [budget deal] that says no ‘poison pills,’ unless leaders and the president agree, this could become a real problem for GOP leaders and the president.”

Gordon Adams, a former senior budget official in the Clinton administration, said it is foolish to believe “the White House has something called plans.”

“Whatever Ueland says their ‘plans’ are, they will be upset by the ‘tweeter in chief,’” he said, referring to Trump. “Everybody in the White House is clearly improvising day to day.”

At the time of the shutdown, Republicans pressed the president to accept a Democratic offer for less border wall funding than he both initially sought and was offered just before DHS and the other agencies went dark.

Eight months later, the president has told staff he wants to avoid a repeat of a shutdown that would be blamed on him and Republicans. The first test for the White House and lawmakers could come after House Democratic leaders, as Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland partially spelled out last week, put a “clean” continuing resolution on the chamber floor next week.

That would fund the government for an unspecified amount of time beyond Sept. 30, when the current fiscal year expires. Ueland signaled the president is inclined to sign it.

“Depending on what we see from Congress, in the event they are unable to complete action on all 12 spending bills by the end of September, the president made it clear to his senior team earlier this year that he does not want to see a government shutdown,” Ueland said. “We will operate inside the direction. If he has other direction, that’s his choice, and that’ll come down the line.”

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Ueland called Hoyer’s call for a stopgap to allow the Senate Appropriations Committee to get its 12 bills to the floor and then work on compromises with the House “very interesting.” A former Frist and senior Budget Committee staffer himself, he added that plan is “within the framework of not wanting to see the government shutdown.”

Hoagland said he cannot foresee any benefit that Trump or Republicans could gain by a fall shutdown.

“The lesson of last year should be enough to at least get an agreement on a CR through late November or early December,” he said. “I expect we will be wrestling with 2020 appropriations right up to when snow flakes are falling on the Capitol.”

Ueland said other priorities include bringing down prescription drug prices, the annual defense policy bill, and the administration’s proposed U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade pact.

On the latter, he pushed back on a question about whether there was enough time for Congress to delve into the trade agreement with hearings, floor debate and final votes since spending bills and nominations for senior executive branch and judicial posts take up so much time, particularly in the Senate.

Ueland said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer — who has complimented Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the process — remains “optimistic” Congress will get to it before the new year.

On the Pentagon authorization bill, Ueland said there was “a lot of work done during the August recess,” and White House officials are “heartened” that the four leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees will negotiate the differences between their measures.

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