GOP Congress unnerved by Trump bumps

The crush of crises that have consumed the first month of the Trump administration are frustrating and unnerving congressional Republicans looking for guidance and details from the White House on key policy issues like healthcare and tax reform.

Some in the GOP are shrugging off the barrage of negative headlines, chalking it up to an unorthodox president and growing pains for a new administration still staffing up.

Other key voices in the party say the Trump controversies are adding up and preventing Republicans from devoting their full attention to their top legislative priorities: repealing and replacing ObamaCare and overhauling the tax code.

“It is a distraction,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' MORE (R-Tenn.) said this week after Trump fired his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and news outlets reported close ties between Trump campaign aides and Russia. “I mean every day you guys, you're not focused on tax reform right now ... nor [are] the American people. It's taking away from other efforts.”

The health and tax issues are extremely complex, and leaders and committee chairmen are operating on tight timelines — any major delays could jeopardize the agenda Republicans hope to fulfill in Trump’s first 200 days.

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Communication also has been a challenge. The White House’s decision to keep Congress in the dark about Trump’s controversial travel ban infuriated GOP leadership and rank-and-file members, who argued they could have helped shape and defend the order if they had been briefed beforehand. Trump officials pledged to improve communication with Capitol Hill, and there’s been some evidence of that.

Some in conservative circles, including Sean Hannity of Fox News and Matt Drudge of The Drudge Report, have praised Trump's first month of office and have blamed congressional Republicans for the lack of major legislative accomplishments so far.

In an interview with Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanOcasio-Cortez top aide emerges as lightning rod amid Democratic feud Juan Williams: GOP in a panic over Mueller House Republicans dismissive of Paul Ryan's take on Trump MORE (R-Wis.) this week, Hannity said, "[Trump is] moving at the speed of light, and people have been asking me — it's the top story on The Drudge Report today — where's Congress?"

Ryan told reporters Thursday that he speaks with Trump, Pence, chief of staff Reince Priebus and other top White House officials almost daily. And the Speaker said the GOP’s ObamaCare efforts will begin to pick up now that former Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) has been confirmed as Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary. Price met separately with House and Senate Republicans this week.

“Our House and Senate teams are in consultation with the White House constantly,” Ryan said at a news conference after a Hill reporter asked whether communication could be better. There’s “fantastic communication, better than I’ve ever seen before.”

Ryan’s remarks came shortly after Trump huddled with a dozen House Republicans who had been early supporters during the campaign. During the White House meeting, Trump, far from a policy wonk, gave some clarity on at least one policy issue: He voiced support for renewing the Export-Import Bank.

“He was very positive on that. He kinda had a conversion on that,” said one participant, who explained to Trump how Ex-Im benefits his congressional district.

But the past week has felt like Trump’s White House is careening from one crisis to the next, reacting to the controversy du jour and unable to string together positive news cycles. Some GOP allies worry that, under attack, the White House will make the mistake of recoiling rather than reaching out to friends on Capitol Hill.

“The danger is they become hunkered down over there in a bunker mentality, and you get more problems like the roll out of the immigration executive order,” said one House GOP lawmaker who backs Trump. “They are not reaching out to their allies here in the House and the Senate. The danger is they become more insular and it creates more problems.

“The solution,” the lawmaker continued, “is they need to be communicating to us more, reaching out more, coordinating more. There couldn’t be too much of that.”

Such complaints were raised by Democratic lawmakers during the Obama presidency, when the White House was frequently criticized for being too distant with its allies on Capitol Hill.

Another huge problem is staffing. Trump still has not nominated many of the deputy secretary, ambassador and other key posts requiring Senate confirmation. The White House continues to lack a full-time communications director, with press secretary Sean Spicer pulling double duty; however, veteran GOP strategist Mike Dubke is expected to fill that role soon. And many offices in the sprawling Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House still remain vacant.

“They have got to figure out how to get people into these key slots,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzHouse Oversight panel demands DeVos turn over personal email records The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke GOP senators decline to criticize Acosta after new Epstein charges MORE (R-Utah), who met privately with Trump earlier this month. “I was walking in [the Eisenhower Executive Office Building] today. There are still a lot of empty seats. Once they get fully staffed, it will get better, but it can’t happen soon enough.”

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who chairs a House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Energy Department and water infrastructure, agreed, said it's been challenging to proceed with regular oversight work without key Trump officials in place.

“We’re sitting here going, 'OK, we gotta do hearings and so forth, who do I call up do have a hearing at Energy and Water?’” Simpson said.

Simpson also echoed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet GOP put on the back foot by Trump's race storm Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA —Biden unveils health care plan | Proposal pitches subsidies, public option | Biden vows if you like your health insurance, 'you can keep it' | Sanders protests planned Philadelphia hospital closure MORE (R-Ky.) in criticizing Trump for going off message.

Mainstream Republicans who voted for Trump “are saying, 'What the hell is going on? And why are we talking about Ivanka’s clothing line and whether there were 3 to 5 million illegals, he would have won the popular vote?’” Simpson said. “Why are we talking about all this stuff?”

“I’m just hoping that we will get to where he focuses on those things that are important ... Most Republicans agree with his agenda and what he wants to do.”

Ryan and his leadership team say all is going to plan. Republicans will overhaul both the healthcare and tax systems, even if the Speaker has to will it to happen.

“We are doing tax reform. Tax reform is going to happen. Do you know why tax reform is going to happen? Because it has to happen,” Ryan said.

The GOP plans to roll out their much-anticipated ObamaCare repeal and replace bill after the Presidents Day recess, though divisions remain in the conference over how to do it.

The rollout could correspond with Trump’s first joint address to Congress set for Feb. 28 — a speech many Hill Republicans hope is less of a campaign speech and heavier on policy prescriptions that could fill in the blanks on issues like the border wall, infrastructure and taxes.

In interviews with The Hill, a number of Republicans insisted that the key committees working on ObamaCare and tax reform — Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce — are making progress and have been unaffected by recent White House distractions.

But they said it would help enormously if Trump sent an ObamaCare bill to Capitol Hill.

“I’d love for somebody to come out and say, ‘Here’s the plan with specificity,’ or ‘Here’s the bill,’ but it’s unrealistic to expect this administration to, new as they are and with all the problems they’ve had in the Senate getting their key personnel confirmed,” Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) told The Hill.  

“I think it’s unrealistic for us to get this, but would I like to have it? Certainly I would.”

Trump indicated this week he will send a plan to Capitol Hill next month.

Cristina Marcos and Jordain Carney contributed.