The number of problems that consumed the first month of the Trump administration is infuriating and demoralized congressional Republicans are looking for direction and specifics from the White House on key policy issues such as tax reform and healthcare.
Several in the GOP are shrugging off the bombardment of negative headlines, and are blaming it on a new president who is unorthodox as well as growing pains for a new administration that is not fully staffed up.
KEY MEMBERS OF GOP
Key voices in the party say the Trump controversies are beginning to add up and are causing problems since the numbers of problems are preventing Republicans from applying their full attention to their top legislative main concern: repealing and replacing ObamaCare and overhauling the Tax Code.
“It is a distraction,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (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.”
SPEEDING OUT OF CONTROL
But the past week has felt like Trump’s White House is speeding from one crisis to the next, responding to the ‘controversy du jour’, and is not able to put together any news cycle that is positive. Some GOP associates worry that, while under attack, the White House will make the mistake of reacting 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.”
Another huge problem is staffing. Trump still has not nominated many of the deputy secretaries, ambassadors 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. And many offices in the sprawling Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House still remain vacant. Some people that came with the White House are just quitting, while others appointed by Trump are not passing FBI checks. Trump is also beginning to have more and more people who are not interested in accepting positions.
SLOTS NEED FILLED
“They have got to figure out how to get people into these key slots,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who met privately with Trump earlier this month. “I was walking in EEOB 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), chairman of House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Energy Department and water infrastructure, agreed, saying it’s been hard to continue with regular oversight work since key Trump officials are not in place. “We’re sitting here going, ‘OK, we gotta do hearings and so forth, who do I call up to have a hearing at Energy and Water?'” Simpson said. He is also echoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in criticizing Trump for going off message which happened with the Presser during the last week. Trump just goes off message, often not answering the question asked and he still talking about the election campaign.
NORMAL GOP SUPPORTERS
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 TEAM
Ryan and his team say all is going as planned. Republicans will overhaul both the healthcare and tax systems, even if the Speaker cannot 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 President’s Day recess, though separations remain in the conference over how to do it and town hall meetings that show many rank and file Republicans are not happy about this one. If this gets rolled out badly – there will be hell to pay in mid-term elections.
TRUMP JOINT ADDRESS TO CONGRESS
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 preparations that could fill in the blanks on issues like the border wall, infrastructure and taxes.
In interviews, a number of Republicans insisted that the key committees working on Obamacare and tax reform – Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce – are progressing and have been unaffected by current 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.) has said.
“I think it’s unrealistic for us to get this, but would I like to have it? Certainly I would.”