Republicans on Capitol Hill fear that President TrumpDonald TrumpUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Trump sues NYT, Mary Trump over story on tax history McConnell, Shelby offer government funding bill without debt ceiling MORE will knock them off-course as they make a furious year-end push for their legislative agenda.
There is precious little margin for error as the GOP battles to pass tax reform and come to an agreement on government spending — and Trump’s taste for controversy doesn’t help, they say.
“While he will push for tax reform, Trump is never going to change and could end up distracting everyone over unrelated matters that feed the base,” said one Republican strategist with close ties to the White House.
Less than an hour after the strategist made that point on Monday afternoon, Trump created just such a distraction.
At a White House ceremony honoring Navajo Code Talkers, he jabbed at Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBipartisan senators to hold hearing on 'toxic conservatorships' amid Britney Spears controversy Senate advances Biden consumer bureau pick after panel logjam White House faces increased cries from allies on Haitian migrants MORE (D-Mass.), referring to her as Pocahontas.
Trump’s use of the term, considered by some to be a racial slur, sparked a firestorm on social media.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders faced a number of questions on the topic at a media briefing. She defended Trump, denied “Pocahontas” was a slur and tried to keep the focus on Warren, a potential presidential candidate in 2020.
The broader issue, though, is one in which delicate negotiations over complicated issues can be cast into confusion at a moment’s notice by the president.
Senate Republican lawmakers will be looking for reassurance when Trump meets with them on Tuesday at their weekly policy luncheon.
The GOP badly needs a win on tax reform after efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare, ran aground earlier this year.
Republican lawmakers are also eager to avoid a government shutdown, which could occur if a new spending deal is not reached by Dec. 8.
But divisions between Trump and Capitol Hill Republicans complicate work on both fronts.
Trump recently signaled support for Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama, breaking with GOP lawmakers who have distanced themselves from Moore over allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls.
Neither the Republican National Committee nor the party’s Senate campaign arm, the National Republican Senate Committee, is spending money to help Moore win the special election on Dec. 12.
Trump’s backing of Moore also adds another point of friction to his strained relationship with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell, Shelby offer government funding bill without debt ceiling Franken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Woodward: Milley was 'setting in motion sensible precautions' with calls to China MORE (R-Ky.), who has tried to get Moore out of the race.
The erosion of trust between Trump and the GOP could also be a factor in the government funding talks.
Republican lawmakers have not forgotten the president’s impromptu deal with Democrats in September, when he overruled GOP leaders and agreed to a stopgap measure favored by Democratic leaders Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerLouisiana delegation split over debt hike bill with disaster aid The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Government shutdown fears increase as leaders dig in McConnell signals Senate GOP will oppose combined debt ceiling-funding bill MORE (N.Y.) and Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats seek to cool simmering tensions Louisiana delegation split over debt hike bill with disaster aid House Democrats unveil legislation to curtail presidential power MORE (Calif.) — or “Chuck and Nancy” as Trump has sometimes called them.
Some in the GOP also smarted when, during one of the abortive attempts to repeal ObamaCare, Trump first held a Rose Garden event to celebrate the passage of House legislation, only to later disparage the same bill as “mean.”
“What Republicans would like to see now is what they have wanted to see all year — a focus on moving a legislative agenda,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee and frequent Trump critic.
“We have seen some fits and starts with that, but it hasn’t been a long-term or consistent priority for the president,” Heye added. “That takes focus and discipline, and we haven’t seen that.”
Trump weighed in on the tax bill — in comparatively restrained fashion — earlier Monday. On Twitter, he enthused that it was “coming along very well [with] great support” but said the proposal would nevertheless require “just a few changes.”
Still, there is guarded optimism in Republican ranks that tax reform could win passage before the end of the year.
Few things unite the GOP so emphatically as a desire for lower taxes. Lawmakers are keenly aware of the political imperative to deliver some tangible benefits to the voters who elected them before next year’s midterm election season begins.
“There is growing momentum for this and I’m confident that we’re going to get this done soon,” Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote MORE (R-Pa.) told reporters at the White House on Monday.
Toomey was among a group of lawmakers who met with Trump and Vice President Pence moments before to discuss the tax bill.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchCongress, stop holding 'Dreamers' hostage Drug prices are declining amid inflation fears The national action imperative to achieve 30 by 30 MORE (R-Utah) was upbeat as well, insisting that Republicans in the upper chamber would have the votes to pass tax legislation.
“We intend to get to 50,” Hatch said.
Some Republicans defend the way Trump has pushed the tax-reform package to date.
“On the tax stuff, he is doing a pretty good job,” said John Feehery, a former aide to GOP leaders on Capitol Hill who is also a columnist for The Hill. “He can talk with great authority about how this will help the business sector create jobs.”
Feehery said he is “very optimistic” that tax reform would pass, even if it would involve “a delicate dance” between Trump and his party colleagues.
Others sounded a more cautious note.
“They need this to be all hands on deck — big hands or small hands,” Heye said. “It is a real challenge for the president to stay out of his own way.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.