WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — President Trump’s State of the Union pledge to “extend an open hand” to both parties in pursuit of an ambitious policy agenda quickly came up against the reality of a largely gridlocked Congress and a Republican Party gripped by fear of a brutal midterm election cycle.
Republican senators and House members headed out of town Wednesday to their annual retreat uncertain over how to contend with another spending deadline, immigration deadlock, the year’s electoral challenges — and Trump himself, whose controversies have compounded their troubles.
Plans to address these issues were jarred Wednesday when an Amtrak train carrying lawmakers to the conference crashed into a truck near Crozet, Va., killing one person in the truck and injuring others.
But lawmakers pledged to press ahead on their retreat, boarding buses in Charlottesville toward the Greenbrier resort here — perhaps all too aware of how many difficult matters they intend to address over the coming days.
Vice President Pence spoke here Wednesday evening, urging Republicans not to trust the “conventional wisdom” on the midterms and advising them to tout the party’s policy achievements, with help from him and the president. Trump planned to visit Thursday, with the president’s lofty rhetoric Tuesday night about bipartisanship, and his ambitious promises to tackle infrastructure and immigration, likely to come up against the internal divisions within the GOP.
“I certainly want us to address how we, House Republicans, can work better with the Senate Republicans, because I don’t think we had a good working relationship last year,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne (Ala.).
Settling on a policy agenda is especially critical in an election year that will test the staying power of the GOP’s majorities. Republicans believe their political survival will rest heavily on convincing voters that tax legislation passed in December will help them — and on doing more legislatively to demonstrate that the party can govern.
“I still worry, you know, I said all along, if we don’t accomplish what we said we would do then, that’s going to be hardship for us,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.), the chairman of the Senate Republican campaign arm.
Republicans in swing districts facing a potential Democratic wave according to most nonpartisan analysts said they are focused on selling the Republican tax law.
“Folks in my district want to learn about why the tax bill is good,” said Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), who represents the Philadelphia suburbs. “I’m hearing as much about the president’s style and tone as I am about his policies. They’re allergic to that, and it makes a member like me have to speak out.”
But coming to agreement will be difficult.
After Trump’s speech, conservatives expressed alarm that Trump had offered to put more than 1 million young undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an advocate for a more restrictive immigration system, said Trump’s remarks on letting young undocumented immigrants gain citizenship were not well received by many of his colleagues.
“You notice the Republicans were pretty flat on that?” King asked.
On infrastructure, Trump drew bipartisan praise when he pledged to build “gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways all across our land.”
Yet some GOP lawmakers expressed concern about how to pay for the $1.5 trillion plan.
“One-point-five trillion [dollars] matched by apparently $1.5 trillion at the state — where does that come from, how does that work? A lot of details that need to be worked out,” Gardner said.
Although infrastructure has been viewed as a potentially unifying issue for the two parties, Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on how to proceed.
Most Republicans, as they mingled at the Capitol on Tuesday after Trump’s speech, talked up infrastructure as public-private partnerships driven by tax credits for corporations. Democrats, however, talked about infrastructure as federal spending that should be driven by Congress, not by companies.
“It’s totally different,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat, said of the Democrats’ understanding of infrastructure. Referring to Trump’s comments on funding, Durbin added: “To me, it’s a throwaway line; it avoids coming up with serious funding.”
On spending, Republicans face similar fractures. GOP hawks are clamoring for a boost in military spending, but the party’s hard-liners are unhappy with proposals that would increase the federal deficit. Some Republicans, meanwhile, also fretted about the high hurdle of securing Democratic votes to pass a new spending bill by Feb. 8 to avoid another government shutdown.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a former Trump campaign rival who has become an ally, emerged from the speech and noted the partisan breach and the disconnect between Trump’s words and the dynamics on Capitol Hill.
“I have never seen the Senate more divided than it is right now,” Cruz said.
Factoring into the atmosphere are the retirements of Republicans who have shepherded legislative deals. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (N.J.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, announced Monday that he will not seek reelection, making him the eighth House committee chairman to do so in recent months.
In other words, the president isn’t likely to have many options for grand bargains among either Republicans or Democrats. Even Trump’s allies acknowledged that there is little the president can do to bring the warring factions together.
“The fights and the disagreements have nothing to do with who is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “There are fundamental gaps in the Senate and the House that are keeping us from consensus.”
A shutdown in January left congressional leaders at odds and without a long-term spending deal. Democrats continue to insist that any agreement made in February must include protections for 1.8 million “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
Republicans have resisted those calls to link a vote on the next spending bill to immigration legislation — and they are split on specifics.
“We keep kicking the can down the road,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a close ally of Trump who is part of a budget panel at the retreat. “There’s a growing sense that we’ve come to the end of kicking this budget issue down the road.”
Those divisions were apparent in the aftermath of Trump’s speech, in which he said many of the young undocumented immigrants would be able to gain citizenship over a 12-year period. That legalization would be granted in return for increased spending on border security, including Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, an end to the visa lottery and limits on family reunification policies.
Trump terminated the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last fall and set March 5 as the deadline when the bulk of their work permits would begin to expire. A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order reinstating the program, although legal analysts said the decision probably would be overturned if challenged.
Moderate Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are urging their colleagues to let them work out an agreement with moderate Senate Democrats.
Beyond Pence and Trump, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were also planning to attend.
Trump’s low approval ratings have raised alarm bells in the party. Historically, first midterms have tended to be bad for the president’s party. Trump’s rhetoric and positions, coupled with a special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election that has ensnared his associates, threaten to make it an even tougher task.
Across the country, Republicans in competitive races have been distancing themselves from the president’s brashness.
“I’ve been critical of the vulgarity. I think the president can strengthen his position, and therefore the position of the Republican Party in general, by continuing to conduct himself as he did, for example, in Davos,” said Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), referring to a speech Trump gave at an economic forum last week.
Senate Republicans were once hopeful about padding their narrow majority on a map they saw as ripe for gains in November. Democrats are defending 10 seats in states Trump won.
But a disappointing special election loss in Alabama late last year narrowed the GOP advantage to 51 to 49, and Trump’s unpopularity has left many Republicans to conclude that simply holding the majority would be victory under the circumstances.
There is more concern about the House majority among strategists, donors and lawmakers. A string of high-profile retirements has only heightened worries.
With that in mind, there is now debate about how aggressive to be with this year’s legislative agenda.
“Their tendency is to sort of sit on the lead,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), speaking of the Senate. “Our tendency is to press it more aggressively. We think our majority is much more at risk than theirs.”
Costa reported from Washington. David Nakamura and Ed O’Keefe in Washington contributed to this report.