President Donald Trump’s first speech to Congress left Republicans encouraged and enthusiastic Wednesday, yet still confronting thorny divisions on health care, taxes and more.
Trump’s disciplined and optimistic tone was what GOP lawmakers wanted to hear after a rocky first month that provoked daily anxiety on Capitol Hill with each new presidential tweet. Republicans welcomed Trump’s presentation and his call for “a new chapter of American greatness.”
Yet even though Trump offered some specifics on health care and appeared to embrace a key element of a leadership-backed plan emerging in the House, his comments did little to settle an extremely difficult debate over Republicans’ top legislative priority.
Indeed, a day after the president called for “unity and strength,” Republicans looked as divided as ever as they try to make good on seven years of promises to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s health care law. Most said Trump’s speech hadn’t changed that or brought them much closer together.
As Republicans cheered and Democrats sat silently Tuesday night, Trump declared: “We should help Americans purchase their own coverage, through the use of tax credits and expanded health savings accounts – but it must be the plan they want, not the plan forced on them by the government.” Those were comments House GOP leaders interpreted as an embrace of their plan to replace the Affordable Care Act with a new system built around refundable tax credits.
But conservatives who’ve been rebelling against that plan, denouncing the credits as a costly new entitlement, disagreed. And they showed few signs of backing down, although Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., leader of a large group of House conservatives, conceded Wednesday that the refundable tax credits likely will be included in the GOP leadership plan, adding he would try to limit the cost of those credits.
GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has joined Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky in declaring their opposition to the legislation emerging in the House, accused the media of “bending over backwards” to interpret Trump’s remark as a specific legislative proposal. Cruz insisted that Congress should begin by passing legislation that simply repeals Obamacare like a bill Obama vetoed in early 2016.
Trump’s comments on another massive legislative priority, overhauling the loophole-ridden tax code, also did not appear to move the needle. A vague overture on immigration was welcomed by some, yet with no details provided its future was cloudy. The president repeated his call for a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, but that could provoke a confrontation with deficit hawks and is on the back burner on Capitol Hill anyway given the enormous legislative lifts on health care and taxes that loom first.
And Trump’s failure to say anything about Medicare and Social Security, the massive entitlements that are eating up the budget, left some Republicans complaining that he was ducking political reality. – AP