Trump, GOP off to a rocky start

Trump, GOP off to a rocky start
© Greg Nash

Republicans insist that the relationship between President Trump and congressional GOP leaders is improving despite a rocky first 100 days.

They say that communication is getting better and that voters will soon start to see Republicans put some points on the board after three months with relatively few legislative achievements.

The first major piece of bipartisan legislation is expected to hit Trump’s desk this week: a $1 trillion bill that funds the government through the end of September — albeit without money for a wall Trump once demanded along the U.S.-Mexico border.

It’s still a win for Republicans who desperately wanted to avoid a shutdown on Trump’s watch.

Yet it belies some problems.

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More than a month after the bungling of the GOP’s ­ObamaCare replacement bill, there is lingering distrust in the White House. Instead of deferring to Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAEI names Robert Doar as new president GOP can't excommunicate King and ignore Trump playing to white supremacy and racism House vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King MORE (R-Wis.) and congressional committees, the White House took the lead last week in rolling out a tax reform plan.

And Trump is taking a more hands-on role as Republicans try to push their revived health insurance bill through the House this week in what’s being called a now-or-never moment for replacement.

Trump “worked it the way he was told to work it. And it didn’t work,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former member of GOP leadership, told The Hill. “And so he’s looking up here and saying, ‘Can you guys really deliver?’ That’s a legitimate question to ask.

“We’ve had four election cycles where we’ve talked about repeal and replace,” Cole continued. “I think he’s certainly sent a message he’s open to a different tack.”

On the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, top White House officials have privately grumbled about how House Republicans handled the first healthcare push. Some of that frustration has spilled out in the open: On Twitter, Trump vowed to back primary challengers to far-right House Freedom Caucus members who were reluctant to get on board with the plan.

During his weekend rally marking his 100th day in office, Trump took aim at whichever GOP lawmakers happened to be in the audience.

“I will be so angry at Congressman [Mike] Kelly [Pa.] and Congressman [Tom] Marino [Pa.] and all of our congressmen in this room if we don’t get that damn thing passed quickly,” Trump said in Harrisburg, Pa.

Marc Short, Trump’s liaison to Congress, was more diplomatic in a recent roundtable with reporters. He conceded that the healthcare bill’s timetable was “ambitious” but said the White House believes it ultimately will get done.

“We’ve learned that the House Republican Party, to its credit, is enormously diverse in opinions,” Short said. “But that also sometimes creates larger challenges in bringing them together on a big legislative issue.”

Hill Republicans say communication with Trump and his top aides has been good and is getting better, even if it hasn’t yet resulted in a huge legislative victory.

Trump has been dispatching his new Cabinet members — including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt — to the Capitol for informal meet-and-greet sessions with GOP lawmakers in recent weeks.

Vice President Pence is a regular presence on Capitol Hill and has passed out the phone numbers and email addresses of his top aides so lawmakers can quickly get a message to him.

And GOP lawmakers and their staffs have enjoyed tremendous access to Trump and the White House, from Oval Office executive order ceremonies and bill signings to bowling nights.

“The access has been excellent,” said Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.), who has visited with Trump several times, including for the signing of a bill blocking an Obama administration coal-mining rule.

“We’ve had a terrific relationship with the leadership on the Hill on the Republican side, and we look forward to having stronger relationships on the Democrat side, too,” Short said when asked about lawmakers’ frustrations with the White House. “If there’s a complaint that there’s too many contacts, I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing.”

The White House is betting that building relationships with GOP lawmakers will produce big wins, especially on tax reform, an area where administration officials say they have written off the possibility of winning over Democrats.

But that effort remains a work in progress.

The president’s relationship with the Speaker is slightly more complicated. Trump and Ryan speak regularly by phone and have grown much closer since the days of the presidential campaign, when Ryan hesitated to endorse Trump, then privately told rank-and-file lawmakers he was done defending the presidential nominee after the recording emerged of Trump talking about grabbing women without their consent.

“I’ll tell you, Paul Ryan’s trying very, very hard,” Trump told Fox News last week while acknowledging he’s “disappointed” that congressional Republicans are dragging their feet in passing the healthcare bill.

Trump’s support comes despite some conservatives blaming Ryan for the GOP’s troubles.

“I think the man is absolutely a disaster. He’s become nothing less than a caricature as House Speaker,” Fox News host Sean Hannity, a frequent Ryan critic, said on his show. “He’s inept, and the conference, if they don’t get rid of him, we’re going to watch this nonsense go on in perpetuity.”

“I don’t sense a lot of frustration [­ObamaCare repeal] hasn’t happened yet in the first 100 days,” added Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the group Tea Party Patriots. “The frustration I do sense among our supporters is toward House Republican leadership.”

A Ryan spokeswoman declined to comment for this story. 

The White House’s penchant for setting arbitrary deadlines for congressional action has irked top GOP offices. On Monday, both White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn predicted the House would vote on a revised healthcare bill this week, before the chamber leaves Washington for another weeklong recess.

While the Ryan-Trump relationship has shown signs of improving, the president seems much more comfortable with Ryan’s top deputy, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. The California Republican backed Trump relatively early in the campaign and has nurtured a relationship with the billionaire ever since.

“I think the president has a genuine respect for Kevin’s abilities and skills, and he’s able to explain what is a new place to the president and how it works,” Cole said. “I think he is probably our strongest link” to Trump.

Aside from a handful of White House visits, Trump has not appeared to form a close relationship with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal Senate to take up Trump's border-immigration plan next week Trump pitches new plan to reopen government amid Dem pushback MORE (R-Ky.).

McConnell’s wife, Chao, is leading Trump’s Transportation Department, and he’s earned points for his handling of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation process. But the Senate leader has expressed concern that Trump’s low approval rating could hurt his party in next year’s midterm elections. He’s also repeatedly urged Trump to stop tweeting.

Trump’s bumpy start isn’t exclusive to his presidency, argued longtime Republicans in Washington. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), who served as a House manager during the Senate impeachment trial of President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBuzzFeed story has more to say about media than the president Agency function is tied to how people feel about their job — that's bad news for USDA research 5 myths about William Barr MORE, called the working relationship between the current White House and the Hill an “evolving process.”

“It happens in every presidency, even those that have a lot of experience like Bill Clinton,” Chabot told The Hill. “His first months were disastrous; they sat around like a college campus talking about things in theory before they got their act together.”