Trump’s To-Do List Vexes Congress a Day After His Big Speech

  • Primetime speech included no new details on health care, taxes
  • Republicans are stalled on efforts to repeal Obamacare

President Donald Trump exhorted lawmakers to think big in his first address to Congress, calling for their help in replacing Obamacare, overhauling taxes and boosting defense spending. 

Yet, the morning after his primetime address, the challenges of rising to the occasion on his agenda became clear -- particularly given the lack of detail on those policy priorities and others, including massive infrastructure investment. 

Even when Trump did offer a few details, Republicans lawmakers often came away with different interpretations, including how strongly he embraced plans put forward by House Speaker Paul Ryan on replacing Obamacare and implementing a border-adjusted tax.

Republicans in Congress are now waiting for him to weigh in with a clearer path for legislation on those agenda items, hoping the president’s influence will help break the logjam that has so far split the party on its most urgent objectives. Here’s a look at some of the priorities highlighted in the president’s address, and where they stand in Congress:

Health Care

Trump did sketch out a few broad parameters for his health-care plan, saying the GOP should use "tax credits and expanded health savings accounts” to help Americans purchase their own coverage. 

Ryan quickly seized on that statement, saying that Trump was "coalescing” with GOP leaders on their plan for refundable tax credits. But that element has become a major sticking point in the party, with the heads of two conservative groups of House members announcing this week that they won’t vote for legislation that includes that element. 

"He didn’t say refundable tax credit, he said tax credit. There’s a world of difference between the two," said Republican Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who has introduced his own health-care plan. "I think we all hear what we want to hear in the world of politics.”

Trump did call for giving more control of the Medicaid program to states, while still providing resources "to make sure no one is left out,” a statement that could give ammunition to some Republicans who want to fight conservatives’ plans for a fuller rollback of Obamacare’s expansion of the program.

Senate GOP leaders are holding a closed-door meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss the Obamacare repeal effort with House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden.

Tax Overhaul 

In promising "massive tax relief for the middle class," Trump talked about his unhappiness over "very high tariffs and taxes" that he says put American products at a disadvantage in the global market. 

But his remarks about putting companies on a more even playing field fell short of backing a plan being pushed by Ryan for a border-adjusted tax, the linchpin of a broader Republican effort to deliver significant tax cuts.

The lack of new details reflects a deep split within the Trump administration over the border-adjustment plan. Ryan’s plan is backed by several senior Trump advisers, including top strategist Steve Bannon, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, according to a senior administration official and a person familiar with the sessions. But Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and National Economic Council director Gary Cohn remain opposed.

Congress, too, remains deeply split, with many Senate Republicans openly opposed to border adjustment. Outside groups, meanwhile, are battling over the issue. Retailers, automakers and oil refiners that rely on imported oil oppose the plan and say it would mean higher costs for consumers. Proponents, including General Electric Co. and Oracle Corp., say border adjustments would lead to increased domestic production, more jobs and a stronger dollar, which would reduce the costs of imports and increase the costs of exports.

GOP leaders say they’re hoping to enact a major tax bill before the August recess, but they have only offered a broad outline and face a daunting backlog of other legislative imperatives, including the Obamacare repeal, the looming expiration of government funding on April 28 and the need to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

Border Wall

The president made several references to the wall he promised to build along the U.S.-Mexico border, while omitting his campaign promise that Mexico would pay for it.

"We will soon begin the construction of a great, great wall along our southern border," Trump said in the speech.

But there was no mention of how to pay for it, and his administration has yet to offer any details about timing, design or dollar figures. 

Trump has estimated the wall can be built for a figure ranging from $8 billion to $12 billion. Congressional Republicans have said they expect it would cost from $12 billion to $15 billion, based on what it cost to build existing border fencing. Other estimates have put the total much higher.

Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have said they support providing funding to build a wall, but it’s unclear when they would try to provide the funding -- and whether Congress would have to find offsetting cuts to avoid adding to the deficit.

Defense Spending

Trump’s promise to upgrade the military -- giving it “the resources its brave warriors so richly deserve” -- is one case in which he’s offered a specific dollar figure. But that has only underscored the difficulty he’ll have getting it through Congress.

The administration is proposing a $54 billion increase in defense spending for the fiscal year that begins in October -- paid for through equal cuts from domestic programs and foreign aid.

Democrats have made clear they will oppose lifting budget caps on defense spending without doing the same for domestic programs. Republican defense hawks led by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain have said Trump isn’t proposing a big enough Pentagon increase. And members of both parties have objected to cutting deeply into foreign aid programs at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Trump has signaled that his long-term defense goals include increasing the number of Army troops and the size of the Navy fleet. In the short term, Trump has said the Pentagon is “looking seriously at a big order” of Boeing Co.’s Super Hornet fighter jet, and defense officials said that may be among the early spending moves.

Infrastructure

Trump asked Congress to “approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States -- financed through both public and private capital,” even though no such bills have been drafted. 

The Association of Equipment Manufacturers said before the speech that its “members are eager to hear President Trump detail the scope of his infrastructure proposal, and identify a method for funding it.”

So, too, would lawmakers. Ryan and other House conservatives were less than enthusiastic before Trump’s election as president over his talk about such an infrastructure plan. More recently, Ryan has suggested congressional Republicans might go along with a plan that relies largely on private-sector funding.

But Democrats -- who have long called for upgrading road, bridges and mass transit -- have made clear that their support will be contingent on a significant infusion of public financing.

“What’s missing is a real plan and the money,” Peter DeFazio, the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said after the speech. “Other than that it’s great.”

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