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Republicans still waiting for Trump to take charge on Obamacare and taxes

Republicans still waiting for Trump to take charge on Obamacare and taxes
President Trump and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. (Jim Lo Scalzo / AFP/Getty Images)

By now, Republicans in Congress thought they would be working closely with the White House on signature items of the GOP agenda — repealing and replacing Obamacare, overhauling the tax code.

Many hoped President Trump would play the classic executive's role: Rolling up his sleeves to chart the direction, settle disputes and spend his political capital to bring wayward lawmakers in line.

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But instead, Trump has been reluctant to take charge of Republicans' policy priorities, and GOP lawmakers worry their early momentum is fading amid intraparty squabbles over legislation and Trump's tendency to flit from topic to topic when what they most need now is focus.

The Republican majority has been left hungering for leadership and bickering among themselves over what to do next.

"We could use a unifier, and he can be it," said Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), an early Trump ally who remains close to the White House. "We need [him] to put some pressure on all of us to come together — and to reassure us that he has all of our backs."

Usually, a new administration has the greatest political advantage early on, in the glow of an electoral honeymoon and before the calendar gets bogged down with unforeseen crises.

Trump has been busy issuing executive orders and signing smaller-scale bills into law, but he only began to provide details of his biggest proposals this week during his joint address to Congress, 40 days into his presidency.

He leaned in to House Republicans' plan for repealing and replacing Obamacare by signaling a preference for providing tax credits for Americans to buy health insurance.

Trump also spoke of taxing imports as a way of leveling the playing field for domestic manufacturers, giving a nod to the House GOP's blueprint for tax reform, even though his comments were less full-throated than some would have liked and did not resolve his past flip-flops on the so-called border adjustment tax.

Both of those issues have deeply divided Republicans in Congress as they hammer out details of their two biggest campaign promises – ending Obamacare and reforming the tax code.

Many lawmakers were heartened that Trump's speech signaled his willingness to join the debate.

"We absolutely need it," said one Republican member of the House, granted anonymity to speak frankly. "There's going to be an opportunity for him to take the banner and run with it — and we will follow."

Whether Trump will fight for the ideas he floated Tuesday or leave the details to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) remains to be seen. The legislative process is expected to take months.

"President Trump will need to do more than merely wait upon a Republican Congress to produce the legislation he has championed," wrote Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) in a New York Times op-ed. "He must become an active participant in the legislative process."

The longer Trump waits to chart the way, the easier for others to fill the void.

"Nature abhors a vacuum," said Republican Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, the state's former governor. "As a consequence, you're seeing an attempt to fill in the blanks."

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Already, Trump's onetime campaign rivals, Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, have spoken against the tax credits in the House GOP healthcare plan.

Conservative critics, including Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and the House's Freedom Caucus, view refundable credits as another federal government entitlement program like the Obamacare subsidies that help some Americans buy insurance.

The three senators derisively opposed the House GOP plan as "Obamacare-lite."

"We're not just going along with whatever they try to shove down our throats," Paul, the Kentucky Republican, said on CNN. "Conservatives will be listened to or there won't be a repeal."

Their pushback was significant because Congress would not likely have enough votes to pass the Obamacare replacement without them, despite party's majority hold on both chambers.

The alliance between Republicans in Congress and Trump in the White House was always expected to be tenuous. Most Republican lawmakers did not initially back Trump for president.

They did, however, support the prospects of one-party control of the House, the Senate and the White House. Republicans long complained that as the majority in Congress, they could not institute their agenda with a Democratic president.

Now, the problem is not that there are too few Republicans in power, but that no single Republican is leading them.

Lawmakers who want him to jump into legislative process are also mindful of ceding too much influence to a president who could swoop in at any moment and upend their painstaking policy work with his own ideas.

"It's really not an area that I would say of getting the White House to come tell us what to do," said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who blamed Democratic delay tactics for the "painfully slow" start of the legislative session.

"The White House has to step out and say, 'Here are the key things I'll sign and I won't sign,'" he said. "We're all setting up parameters of the debate."

White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah H. Sanders acknowledged Wednesday a delay in churning out the "nitty-gritty" policies, but blamed the Senate for taking so long to confirm Trump's Cabinet.

"As they build out and they get confirmed, you are going to see a lot more interaction down in the weeds," she said during an interview in the West Wing, noting that Republican leaders from the House and the Senate were eating lunch with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence nearby in the Roosevelt Room.

"I don't know how you can be more direct than sitting down with the president himself," Sanders said.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) noted that by this time in his first year, President Obama had signed several bills into law, including the economic recovery act in the midst of the Great Recession.

Obama aides set up shop early on Capitol Hill to begin the painstaking work of creating the Affordable Care Act with Congress that was passed into law the following year.

Trump talks about the "mess" he's inherited, Pelosi said, but "he's talking about his own first 40 days in office – which he utterly squandered."

Trump is indeed vigorously acting the part of president, inviting GOP lawmakers to the White House and sending his legislative team to Capitol Hill. Pence is a regular at the Senate GOP's weekly policy lunch and an entourage of White House staffers — many former aides in Congress — joined the House GOP's regular Tuesday morning meeting in the Capitol basement.

Wednesday's White House lunch was "about charting out the agenda and the timeline," said Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

But Trump does not always share policy prescriptions with his Republican allies in Congress and is, at times, still forming his own.

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In fact, during his speech, Trump inserted a new topic for debate – immigration reform – that was not on the to-do list for Congress this year.

Republican leaders are working to keep distractions at bay as they press forward with their agenda.

"What we all recognize, is that this is a once-in-a-generation moment," Ryan said. "We have the opportunity to finally tackle big problems that have held us back for so long."

Times staff writer Brian Bennett contributed to this report.

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