Cautious welcome from congressional Republicans to Trump era
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congressional Republicans anxiously monitor President Donald Trump's Twitter feed, parse his pronouncements, and brace for potential controversy each time he gives an interview.
But GOP lawmakers also say they're growing increasingly accustomed to expecting the unexpected from Trump, and they're learning to take his abrupt pivots in stride, even when what he says stirs divisions or casts doubt on key Republican goals.
So at the dawn of the Trump presidency, the most optimistic Republicans on Capitol Hill have high hopes they can learn to work with the new chief executive to bring about positive change for a bitterly divided nation. The GOP has monopoly control over Washington for the first time in a decade, and Republicans are keenly aware that voters expect them to deliver.
"It's what the American people want. It's refreshing," said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. "You'll see the House and Trump working closely together. We have the same priorities."
Many congressional Republicans, from Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., on down, were slow to embrace Trump's candidacy, and some of those concerns linger. Several lawmakers are wary of Trump's foreign policy stances, such as his scepticism toward NATO. Trump's fickleness, his tendency to embrace a position one day before seeming to abandon it the next, confounds some in his party.
That happened recently on health care and taxes, the two domestic issues for Congress this year. In a pair of high-profile interviews this month, Trump made a surprise call for health insurance for everyone and cast doubt on a core plank of the House GOP tax plan, before softening both stances in subsequent interviews.
GOP Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, his state's governor for eight years before coming to Congress, said a chief executive needs to take a stand.
"It's OK in a campaign world to cause people to not be sure of how you're going to react, it keeps them on edge and maybe not on their full game," Sanford said. "In the world of governance, it can be disastrous."
Trump himself disclosed that Ryan called him up and asked him to stop talking about taxes, because "it's very complicated stuff." But in general, Ryan and other members of GOP leadership, who are in frequent contact with Trump and his top aides, tend to be sanguine about Trump's erratic public pronouncements. They say that as rank-and-file lawmakers get to know Trump better their concerns will be quieted, too.
President Barack Obama came under criticism from lawmakers of both parties for his hands-off approach to Congress, his apparent disinterest in schmoozing with lawmakers or using the trappings of his office to woo them. Top lawmakers and aides say they've already impressed upon Trump's lieutenants the importance of care and feeding of lawmakers, and they predict Trump will have better congressional relations than Obama.
"There's an inclination this president has toward personal relationships, meaningful personal relationships," said Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, a member of the House GOP leadership. "So day by day, members get more comfortable with how this president expresses his power and utilises his power. Even if they don't fully grasp it, they're gaining comfort with his approach."
Some Trump supporters have said they learned to take the new president seriously, but not literally, over the course of the campaign, and GOP lawmakers are learning to do the same. After Trump made his comment about everyone having insurance once Obama's health care plan is repealed, lawmakers quickly decided that what Trump actually meant was that everyone should have "access" to insurance, which is the standard GOP talking point.
"I guess you'd probably have to ask him what exactly he means by that, but my assumption is that it's a reference to what most of us have been talking about," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. "And that is we want to make sure that everybody in the country has access to a health insurance plan that works for them and is affordable."
Similarly, Trump surprised some lawmakers by declaring he had his own health care plan on the verge of completion; if so, no one has seen it. But others shrugged it off, concluding that Trump was probably really just talking about the proposals under development between Trump's transition team and GOP leadership.
Lawmakers got an early taste of the power of Trump's Twitter feed as the 115th Congress came into session at the beginning of January. As their first act, House Republicans decided behind closed doors to gut an independent ethics office. But when Trump tweeted his disapproval amid a public backlash, the GOP immediately reversed course.
Now the hope among Republican lawmakers is that Trump will spare them his Twitter fire and focus instead on recalcitrant Senate Democrats, nudging them into helping the GOP replace Obama's health law and overhaul tax laws. But as Trump begins governing, even supporters on Capitol Hill say they can't predict what will happen next.
"It's Donald Trump, you should expect the unexpected," former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Friday as Trump prepared to take the oath. "If you think the last 12 months have been pretty crazy, wait till you see the next 12 months."