Republicans just passed their tax plan, President Trump increased fees on Mar-a-Lago’s New Year’s revelers, and Anthony Scaramucci confirmed he isn’t making a return to the White House — so why isn’t the mood upbeat in the Trump administration? According to Politico, many top aides are anxious about what’s ahead in 2018, and not just the looming Russia probe and possible Democratic wave in the midterms. While Republicans were able to come together to give wealthy people and corporations a tax break, they’re sharply divided on what their next legislative priority should be:
Behind the scenes, White House aides and Trump’s outside advisers are engaged in a fierce debate over the shape of next year’s agenda. At issue: whether to appeal to traditional conservative voters by tackling welfare reform or instead push forward on the president’s long-promised infrastructure plan, which could attract Democratic support and win over a broader slice of the electorate.
It appears Trump is torn as well:
Trump met before Christmas in the Oval Office with his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, his former director of digital media, Brad Parscale, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway and others about the merits of each option, according to people familiar with the discussion.
The president has privately told top aides at various points that he is eager to pursue both infrastructure and welfare reform. But Trump’s top policy adviser on the subject, Paul Winfree, recently left the White House to return to the Heritage Foundation, and the president has more recently signaled that he believes infrastructure has the best chance of winning bipartisan support and buoying Republicans in the fall.
The question isn’t actually as complicated as it seems, since there’s little chance that major legislation on either of these issues will wind up on Trump’s desk in 2018.
The president indicated early last month that welfare reform would be next on the agenda.
“One thing we’re going to be looking at very strongly is welfare reform. That’s becoming a very, very big subject,” he said during a Cabinet meeting. “And people are taking advantage of the system, and then other people aren’t receiving what they really need to live, and we think it’s very unfair to them.”
Politico reported around that time that the White House was preparing a “sweeping executive order that would mandate a top-to-bottom review of the federal programs on which millions of poor Americans rely.” The Trump administration can certainly make unilateral shifts to make it more difficult for the poor to receive government benefits — like encouraging states to drug test food-stamp recipients and impose stricter work requirements for those on Medicaid. However, that effort can only go so far without help from Congress.
House Speaker Paul Ryan appears dead-set on tackling welfare reform in 2018, and focusing Republican voters’ anger on indigent people ostensibly leeching off the government could be smart politically. But Mitch McConnell already said it isn’t happening. The Senate majority leader — who will be down to only 51 GOP votes when Alabama Democrat Doug Jones is sworn in this week — said in an interview last month that he “would not expect to see” welfare reform in 2018.
“We have to have Democratic involvement. So things like infrastructure … to do something in that area we’re going to have to have Democratic participation,” McConnell said.
Theoretically, both Democrats and Republicans want to repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. A year ago, there was even talk of Democrats working with Trump on infrastructure, but now they have no interest in handing him a big, bipartisan legislative win ahead of the midterms. Even if it weren’t an election year, there’s little chance Democrats would get behind the infrastructure plan Trump is always said to be on the cusp of unveiling.
During the campaign, Trump promised a $1 trillion package to rebuild the nation’s roads, tunnels, and bridges. The bill was supposed to go before Congress within Trump’s first 100 days in office, but all we got was a six-page fact sheet tucked into his 2018 budget proposal in May. The next month, “infrastructure week” was derailed by former FBI director James Comey’s testimony before Congress. The nascent Presidential Advisory Council on Infrastructure was disbanded in August amid the Charlottesville controversy.
Supposedly, Trump is finalizing a 70-page infrastructure proposal that will be unveiled in mid-January (though it’s just a “building block” for lawmakers to write the actual bill). If the details that have leaked so far are accurate, Democrats have even less reason to support the plan. Trump policy adviser D.J. Gribbin described it as an “incentive program” that would provide $200 billion in federal seed money in the hopes of spurring $800 billion in spending from state and local governments, and private-public partnerships. It’s unclear where the $200 billion will come from, but cuts to social spending are a good bet. (The Democrats’ competing $1 trillion infrastructure proposal involves direct federal spending.) The Trump administration is also said to be considering increasing the federal gasoline tax for the first time in 20 years, though many Republicans and conservative groups oppose that.
Another problem: Trump’s reported plan involves states coming up with new funding just as their budgets are taking a hit from the GOP tax reform package, and homeowners are grousing about not being able to deduct state and local taxes.
Trump, McConnell, and Ryan are set to huddle at Camp David next weekend to work out their legislative priorities. Whether Trump opts to focus on welfare reform or infrastructure, the reality is that Congress will likely spend the next few weeks focusing on time-sensitive issues, like avoiding a government shutdown on January 19 and deciding the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
After that, it’s unlikely that Republican lawmakers will want to join Trump in his ill-fated push to either crack down on welfare recipients or offer states an infrastructure plan that they can’t afford — especially because both pair nicely with the Democrats’ likely message for 2018: Trump has a been president for a year, and all we got were these lousy tax benefits for rich people and corporations.