The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump cools to idea of taking on welfare programs, seeing little chance of success in Congress

President Trump on Friday walks from the Oval Office as he leaves en route to Camp David to participate in congressional Republican leadership retreat. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump has begun telling advisers that it will likely be impossible to advance legislation this year to reduce welfare spending and enrollment — a priority he previously embraced with the backing of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and a number of conservative activists. 

In conversations with aides and outside advisers in recent days, Trump has said his supporters would embrace the idea — but that it remains unlikely because the votes will not be there in Congress and it would be a difficult undertaking in an election year. Some Republicans want to reduce health-care, housing and food-stamp spending by making it tougher for beneficiaries to receive the dollars — such as through new work requirements.

But a number of White House officials and advisers have begun tamping down expectations for any overhaul of social safety-net programs, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has told Trump it's a nonstarter in his chamber because he would need the support of Democrats who oppose the idea, a White House adviser said.

The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe looks at President Trump’s demands in the negotiation over a program shielding young undocumented immigrants from deportation. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Abandoning an effort to scale back welfare programs before it even begins could disappoint conservatives who have been pushing the issue for years, although some said they understand it would be difficult to do in the current political environment.

"I don't know that we accept it," said Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who leads the conservative Freedom Caucus. "But besides the possibility of an infrastructure bill, the only two things that will probably get done are an immigration deal and keeping the lights on in the government."

Discussions about this year's legislative agenda began Friday at Camp David, where Trump is hosting a retreat with McConnell, Ryan (R-Wis.) and other Republican leaders, who want to hash out details of an immigration plan and a cohesive strategy for this year, when Republicans are likely to face a difficult political terrain ahead of the midterm elections.

Trump advisers are also looking for wedge issues that would force Democrats in largely Republican states to take "tough votes" to make their reelection odds tougher, according to a White House official, and to build support for an infrastructure plan that could be difficult to pass. 

Marc Short, the legislative affairs director for the White House, declined to comment on the president's wishes ahead of the retreat. 

"The purpose of the weekend is for us to be unified on the agenda in 2018," Short said. 

Ryan has continued to tell White House officials and other Republicans that he wants to move legislation this year that would reduce spending on some entitlement programs. Many members, such as Meadows and other House conservatives, said they would welcome the push — but that it is going nowhere.

"It's a conservative wish list, but that doesn't make it a go list," Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said. "I think that's an accurate assessment that it will be very difficult in 2018." 

Trump and legislators face deadlines on immigration and spending — government funding expires later this month, and tensions over what to do with "dreamers," immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program who arrived in the country illegally as children, need to be resolved by March 5. The two issues have become intertwined, but Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate have made little progress on the negotiations.

Democrats are pushing for a deal that would allow the dreamers to stay in the country, while conservatives are pushing leadership to take a hard line in the negotiations.

At a private meeting at the White House on Thursday, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told Trump and fellow senators that Ryan wanted the Senate to go first on trying to pass immigration legislation and that the House would try to follow. Ryan has told White House advisers that the issue is "toxic" and he wants it done, according to two people familiar with the conversation. A senior House aide said Ryan would have certain priorities in any bill, as well, and was not entirely deferring to the Senate.

Trump has also told a number of aides and outside advisers in recent days that he is concerned Republicans will not support an infrastructure plan, even though he wants one and sees it as a good midterm election play. White House aides are trying to determine what a plan looks like and how to pay for it — possibly through state contributions or private-sector investments.

Trump seems more interested in infrastructure than other subjects, aides said, talking about building and his former life in construction. He often notes how much he thinks different things could cost — and how it would be good for him politically to travel throughout the country to promote new projects.

Conservative aides and leadership officials in Congress said there may be more support than some think for an infrastructure plan, even though many conservatives are resistant to spending hundreds of billions of dollars. Meadows said he was largely "bullish" on a large-scale infrastructure package and wanted it to happen, if it could be funded. 

"The reticence you sense might be from a funding standpoint," Meadows said of Republicans.

Another showdown could come over earmarks. The House Rules Committee will convene hearings this month on earmarks, House aides said. The hearings are not a sign of renewed interest from leadership in installing earmarks — spending designated for specific home-state projects — as a way to reclaim control over unruly lawmakers. Instead, they will fulfill a commitment by Ryan to some members of the Appropriations Committee who pushed for the limited reinstatement of earmarks when rules were set for the 115th Congress shortly after Trump's election.

At the time, some rules changes pushed by the appropriators came close to passing, and Ryan had to intervene to shoot them down, pointing to how bad the optics would be to reinstate earmarks behind closed doors just when Trump was elected to "drain the swamp." The issue was put off but is now coming back up. Reinstating earmarks could be bad politics in an election year.

"That would be a disaster for them if they put that issue on the agenda," said David McIntosh, president of Club for Growth. "They were smart enough to avoid it in their rules session right after the election. Now to come back to it would be a disaster."

A House leadership aide emphasized the hearings would all be public, avoiding any perception that Republicans were scheming privately to bring earmarks back. 

Congressional leaders used to have more tools for controlling members, chief among them the ability to dole out spending for projects back home. But earmarks were banned in 2010 when scandals highlighted abuses. Many lawmakers in both parties would like to see them return, arguing it is the role of the legislature to decide what projects should be funded. 

Erica Werner contributed to this report.