PHILADELPHIA — Republicans eagerly seeking answers from President Trump on how he plans to implement his agenda instead found themselves deflecting new questions Wednesday about the president's latest controversial pronouncements.
A earlier version of this story mistakenly reported that Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) announced plans for a border wall funding bill at a Wednesday retreat session. Rogers, in fact, did not attend the retreat.
But on Wednesday, the president offered up a fresh set of distractions with a flurry of announcements and early-morning tweets.
He signed executive orders designed to jump-start construction of a wall along the Mexican border and withhold federal funds to cities that do not comply with federal immigration laws. Word also came of a White House draft proposal to allow the CIA to reopen secret prisons overseas — and perhaps resume enhanced interrogation techniques. And Trump used Twitter to announce plans "for a major investigation" into his unproved accusations of widespread voter fraud.
That left Republicans scrambling with few details and fewer answers at a moment when they had intended to secure the opposite.
The first signs of trouble came at midday Wednesday, when Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) faced reporters in a hotel ballroom here at the start of a two-day party strategy session.
They came prepared to talk about health care and the tax code but were barraged with questions about Trump’s latest moves.
On voter fraud, Thune said he had not seen any evidence of widespread problems and declined to directly endorse Trump’s investigation.
“If they want to take that up, that is a decision that obviously he can make,” Thune said.
On the administration’s plans to rethink how terrorism detainees are interrogated, Thune was stronger, emphasizing that Congress had settled the issue.
“With respect to torture — that’s banned,” he said, citing a 2015 law that was approved overwhelmingly.
Trying to get back on message, Thune added, “What we have to do is focus on the things that unite us,” including repealing Obamacare and revamping the tax code.
That is exactly what House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tried to do later in the afternoon. In a private gathering of lawmakers, the two GOP leaders laid out an aggressive legislative agenda calling for Congress to repeal major portions of the ACA, pass replacement measures and embark on a significant overhaul of the tax code — all within the first 200 days of blanket GOP control in Washington.
What they didn’t do is fully explain how these goals will be achieved, which is what most Republican lawmakers traveled to Philadelphia to learn.
Interviews with more than a dozen GOP lawmakers revealed a clash of expectations between rank-and-file lawmakers to get started in disassembling Obamacare and party leaders who are all too aware of the obstacles and difficult choices ahead.
“Exact, specific and detailed — that’s what people want,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Rules Committee. “We’re going to own this stuff, and we better be able to explain it.”
“I don’t think you will see a plan,” said Rep. Patrick J. Tiberi (R-Ohio), chairman of a key subcommittee on health care. “I think you will see components of a plan that are part of different pieces of legislation that will make up what will ultimately be the plan.”
In the private session, Ryan and McConnell declared repealing and replacing Obamacare their first order of business, with a target date for action within the next three months. The lawmakers also said they plan to move quickly on a broad rewrite of the tax code that is expected to include deep rate cuts while maintaining current revenue through changes to the international tax code, according to multiple lawmakers in the room who described the meeting, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The leaders laid out a three-pronged plan to undermine Obamacare with a combination of new legislation, executive action by Trump and regulatory changes within his administration. They said that a replacement law would require some Democratic support.
Tax restructuring would follow on an ambitious schedule, members who attended the briefing said, with an eye toward passing that overhaul, at least in the House, before Congress breaks for its summer recess in August. Ryan told members that they would work toward a tax overhaul that would cut rates while roughly maintaining current revenue levels.
“He laid out a very ambitious agenda,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.). “We’re on an aggressive timetable; it was almost like a construction chart the way he laid it out.”
Additionally, congressional leaders announced plans to consider a special appropriations bill funding a Mexican border wall sometimes in the spring and to undo several major Obama-era regulations in the meantime.
One point of tension between Trump and lawmakers was on an infrastructure bill. Leaders told the crowd that the initial draft of their legislative agenda did not include any measure to boost transportation projects, but Trump himself had insisted on it. No details, such as a price tag or structure, were discussed, multiple members said.
“Without the president’s input, that would not have been the case,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who advised the Trump transition.
Trump is scheduled to address the gathering on Thursday, and he is expected to sketch out his legislative agenda for the coming months.
Paying for Trump’s proposals remains an unexplored subject. Many hard-line conservatives previously opposed large policy changes that would add greatly to the deficit, as many of Trump’s proposals could. Trump has said that he does not want to touch popular entitlement programs, but Hill Republicans — including Ryan and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the president’s nominee to run the Department of Health and Human Services — have left the door open.
One question among House Republicans is how many of the recommendations within the official House GOP policy blueprint, “A Better Way,” Trump will also take up. Also unclear is how much leverage these Republican lawmakers will have to negotiate with a president who does not like dissent and regularly takes to cable news and Twitter to lash out at critics.
“He’s only been there a couple of days, I get it, but we do need to know this: Is he going to be with us when we go forward? Where does he stand on these issues?” said Rep. Roger Williams (R-Tex.). “There’s a lot of questions we need to ask him so we know where he is, so we don’t go out down the dirt road and he’s going on down the freeway.”
Collins cautioned that Trump may not linger in Philadelphia and did not expect any significant progress on policy.
“I wouldn’t expect any nitty-gritty,” he said. “It’ll be top-line. He’ll say he’s working closely with Pence and the leadership.”
But Collins acknowledged that any hints will be taken as directives by members who are eager for guidance from the president: “The more specific the president and his administration can be, it’s safe to say that becomes the template.”
Amid Trump’s early moves as president, Ryan and McConnell have taken pains to present a unified front on major policy issues, and their retreat will undoubtedly offer moments of comity — including an address from British Prime Minister Theresa May and a visit from former National Football League quarterback Peyton Manning.
Numerous lawmakers expressed faith that Trump’s bluster could be translated into the familiar language of Republican policy — and almost all cited Pence, a former member of the House GOP leadership who will also attend the retreat Thursday, as a crucial emissary in bridging that divide.
“It very much appears to me, particularly given that Mike Pence comes from the House, that we will have the central role as we ought to as the legislative body in driving legislation,” said Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.). “They need us.”
Tiberi was more blunt about his views on bridging the divide. “I’ve watched this guy for two years,” he told a small group of reporters. “You guys take him literally, and nobody else does. You’ll learn eventually not to take him literally.”
O’Keefe reported from Washington. Robert Costa and Lisa Rein in Washington and Sean Sullivan in Philadelphia contributed to this report.