Shortly before the first major bill of his presidency died without a vote, Donald Trump infamously declared, “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”
Of course, that statement only rang true if one assumed that “nobody” was the president’s nickname for himself. But at least Trump is learning. After campaigning on the idea that his success in business would make him uniquely qualified to enact change in Washington from day one, Trump and his defenders in Congress have argued that he needs some time to get a feel for his new gig — but fear not, he’s a fast learner.
The trouble is, Trump seems to have taken a very narrow lesson from the health-care debacle. Like a child who has learned not to touch hot pans after burning his fingers — but remains eager to play with his mother’s hot iron — the president now knows that health care is complicated, but has gained little humility about the legislative process more broadly.
By April 29, Republicans need to pass a spending bill to avert a government shutdown. That bill is going to need Democratic support in the Senate. But it also may very well need the support of tea-party hard-liners in the House. And the latter aren’t keen on voting for spending bills that don’t defund Planned Parenthood. When Obama was president, the House GOP relied on Democratic votes to keep the government open. But now, with the donkey party out of the White House — and Republicans likely to be blamed for any government failure under their watch — Democrats might be willing to force a shutdown over Trump’s border wall.
Then, the GOP needs to come to agreement on a 2018 budget proposal, raise the debt ceiling, and, according to Trump and Paul Ryan, pass some kind of tax reform.
That seems like a rather full plate for a party that couldn’t even get a vote on a bill it had seven years to write. But Trump is pretty sure he can walk, chew gum, and freestyle rap at the same time.
Per Axios’s Jonathan Swan:
The Trump administration is looking at driving tax reform and infrastructure concurrently, according to a White House source with direct knowledge.
It’s a major strategic shift — infrastructure was likely going to be parked until next year — and is only possible because of last week’s healthcare debacle. President Trump feels burned by the ultra conservative House Freedom Caucus and is ready to deal with Democrats. Dangling infrastructure spending is an obvious way to buy the support of potentially dozens of Dems, meaning he wouldn’t have to bargain with the hardliners.
Pennylvania Republican Bill Shuster, who will lead the push for the infrastructure plan in the House, told Axios that, “Infrastructure is always something, you can see it, you can feel it, you can taste it.”
He also told the outlet that there is “no solid plan” for how to fund and build that tasty “something.”
The administration may have made some progress on that front Monday, when it received a list of 26 requested projects from North America’s Building Trades Unions. More than half of those projects are privately financed, according to McClatchy, and many are looking merely for regulatory measures to expedite the permitting process. The one project seeking taxpayer funding is the $20 billion Gateway project, which would add new rail capacity between New Jersey and New York.
Regardless, trying to build an infrastructure plan from scratch, while refining a tax-reform plan — and then pass them both, simultaneously, seems a bit hubristic.
Although, a lot depends on how liberally Trump is using the phrase “tax reform.” Right now, American corporations are hoarding $2 trillion overseas. There’s already a modicum of bipartisan support for allowing those companies to repatriate that money at a reduced rate, and then plowing the onetime windfall into infrastructure spending.
But even then, Trump will have little guarantee of Democratic support. Team Blue has internalized Mitch McConnell’s infamous insight — in American politics, the opposition party derives little electoral benefit from helping the other side’s president secure bipartisan accomplishments.
Thus, to gain enough Democratic votes to compensate for the House Freedom Caucus’s allergy to government spending, Trump will probably need to put forward a good deal of direct public investment, not merely targeted tax credits and regulatory reforms.
And even if he makes a real effort to reach across the aisle, he’s already given the Democrats plenty of pretexts for slapping his hand away. To name just one: Democrats could refuse to play ball until he released his tax returns.
Nearly four years ago, President Obama proposed a “grand bargain” combining corporate tax reform and infrastructure spending. The opposition party sat on its hands.
Trump’s bet is that a president with less legislative experience — and a long history of insulting and defaming the opposition party — will have more success. Granted, Trump has some big advantages over his predecessor. His party controls both houses of Congress, and a lot of vulnerable red-state Senate Democrats are up for reelection in 2018.
Still, it’s hard not to suspect that Trump is setting himself up for another, bitter learning experience.