Republicans don’t know who to talk to at White House

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With Reince Priebus and Stephen Bannon both out, Republicans on Capitol Hill are asking who they can talk to at the White House ahead of a crucial, difficult stretch in the legislative calendar.

The summer departures of Trump’s first chief of staff and chief strategist have created something of a communications vacuum along Pennsylvania Avenue, since Priebus and Bannon did the “bulk of the outreach” on Capitol Hill, GOP sources said.

Priebus’s replacement, new chief of staff John Kelly, the former Homeland Security secretary and a retired Marine general, is respected on both sides of the aisle but doesn’t have long-standing relationships on the Hill.

{mosads}Several GOP lawmakers told The Hill they don’t personally know Kelly, and there are questions on the right about whether he’ll be a champion for conservative causes as he tries to restore stability to a White House mired in turmoil.

“There is great respect for John Kelly but no real belief that anyone else can effectively carry out the Trump agenda until Kelly replaces Bannon with a conservative leader,” one House GOP lawmaker told The Hill.

Another House Republican added: “Kelly is definitely a huge force, but I don’t know him.”

Before stepping into the chief of staff job, Priebus had spent years cultivating relationships on the Hill as chairman of the Republican National Committee. And while Priebus, a close friend and ally of Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), seemed to embody the GOP establishment, he also made a concerted effort to connect with conservatives over the phone or through emails and text messages.

Bannon, who’s returned to his previous role leading Breitbart News, had been a combative, conservative voice in the West Wing and a natural ally to the far-right House Freedom Caucus.

Conservatives on and off Capitol Hill say it’s now paramount that Trump replace Bannon with someone who has true conservative credentials, the president’s ear and a rapport with lawmakers.

They say this is especially true given fears on the right that the West Wing is shifting left and that Trump is taking most of his advice from first daughter Ivanka Trump, son-in-law Jared Kushner and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn.

Some names being discussed as possible Bannon replacements include former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.); former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who in May was ousted as president of the Heritage Foundation; and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who served as chairman of both the Freedom Caucus and Republican Study Committee.

A White House spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment. However, one White House source said it’s unlikely Bannon’s job would get filled, predicting that Kellyanne Conway, a former Trump campaign manager and key member of the president’s inner circle, would begin to step up her outreach to conservatives in Bannon’s absence.

“My gut tells me it would be Kellyanne since so many people know her and trust her,” the White House source said.

The current chairman of the Freedom Caucus, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), had worked closely with both Priebus and Bannon.

In an interview, Meadows acknowledged that their departures are “not seen as a positive for conservatives” but added that “access to the White House on critical issues continues to happen with great regularity.”

“I have found John Kelly as well as other senior staff very willing to discuss issues,” the conservative lawmaker said.

The White House’s shake-up this summer — which also included the ousters of communications director Mike Dubke, press secretary Sean Spicer and Dubke’s first successor, Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted just 10 days in his role — comes ahead of a challenging September packed with fiscal deadlines. Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling, fund the government and renew a children’s healthcare program, all while Republican lawmakers try to enact tax reform.

Trust between the White House and Capitol Hill is at an all-time low as Trump shifts blame to Congress for his stalled agenda. In recent days, he’s lashed out at Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for failing to quickly lift the debt limit and threatened to shut down the government if Congress fails to fund his southern border wall.

Of course, even with the series of White House firings and resignations, there is no shortage of White House personnel whom lawmakers can reach out to.

Capitol Hill has become something of a second home for Vice President Pence, a former member of House GOP leadership who has separate offices in both the House and Senate. He became a ubiquitous presence in the Capitol during the healthcare fight, negotiating with individual lawmakers and the various factions of the GOP conference he once led.

Lawmakers have Pence’s cellphone number, but many are hesitant to bother the vice president with minor, everyday matters or to brainstorm ideas. He’s often flying Air Force Two around the country or abroad.   

In addition to Conway, conservative lawmakers say they often reach out to Mick Mulvaney or Paul Teller.

Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, is also a former House lawmaker who co-founded the Freedom Caucus; Teller, the White House’s liaison to House and Senate conservatives, previously served as the Republican Study Committee’s executive director and chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), co-chairman of the Tuesday Group of GOP moderates, said his point person at the White House is Ben Howard, whom Dent praised as responsive and “very good.” Both Howard and Teller serve on the White House’s legislative affairs team.

But there’s a sense among lawmakers that the team — overseen by deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn and legislative affairs director Marc Short — doesn’t have much influence or decisionmaking authority. Members of the team are not part of Trump’s inner circle who can stroll into the Oval Office and quickly relay a message or advice from Capitol Hill.

“The White House should empower the director of legislative affairs,” Dent said. Short has power but “probably not as much as he should.”

Less than a month on the job as chief, Kelly is being pulled in many directions. He’s trying to clean up Trump’s contradictory responses to the racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Va., control what information reaches Trump’s desk and revive Trump’s flagging agenda on Capitol Hill.

Recognizing the internal divisions within the Republican ranks, particularly on fiscal matters, Kelly has spearheaded White House efforts to reach out to Democrats as a fallback strategy for moving wish-list items like infrastructure and tax reform, according to reports.

But Trump’s bellicose public approach to congressional relations has done little to ease the simmering tensions between Democrats and the GOP administration — tensions only made worse by the president’s remarks that “both sides” were to blame for the deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

For now, it’s unclear if any Democrats want to provide even a sliver of help to Trump.

Mike Lillis contributed.

Tags Mick Mulvaney Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan Ted Cruz
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