In kicking his top priorities to Congress, President Trump is setting the stage — intentionally or not — for weeks of messy horse-trading that may culminate in a year-end standoff to avoid another government shutdown.
Trump is betting he can pressure Congress into breaking its gridlock and squeeze some concessions from Democrats.
But his own flip-flops on key issues have left lawmakers unable to trust the White House’s leadership and uncertain how to resolve the most thorny policy disputes.
The latest example came Wednesday when Trump reversed course again, criticizing a short-term fix to the Affordable Care Act that he had endorsed just a day earlier. That sent lawmakers back to the negotiating table.
“This president keeps zigging and zagging, so it’s impossible to govern,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
The chaos could become a liability for Trump if it distracts Congress from making progress on its tax reform package or undercuts Republicans’ leverage with Democrats on issues such as helping young immigrants known as “Dreamers,” stabilizing Obamacare and funding the government.
The lack of a clear strategy has complicated the fall agenda for Congress. Republicans, who control the House and Senate, would rather focus their remaining time this year on advancing Trump’s tax cuts package, which faces its own problems amid intraparty disputes. Instead, they are now facing a series of deadlines on difficult issues — immigration, healthcare, the Iran nuclear deal — that have lingered for years.
The result of Trump’s outsourcing may be to push Republicans and Democrats to an agreement by Dec. 8, if not sooner, when they face a series of must-pass votes, including one to fund the government and extend the nation’s debt limit. If Republicans are unable to pass those measures on their own — as has been the case in recent years — that could provide Democrats with a vehicle to push their own priorities.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, predicted Wednesday that the bipartisan fix to the Affordable Care Act that he negotiated with the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, could still be approved.
“My guess is that it will be a part of discussions” between the president and congressional leaders, Alexander said after talking with Trump. “And I predict it will pass in some form before the end of the year.”
Trump on Tuesday called the healthcare compromise a “good solution” that would bring down healthcare premiums. But after conservatives balked, the president backed away Wednesday, calling it a “bailout” for the insurance industry and demanding more concessions from Democrats.
Delaying action and piling up too many items on the to-do list at year end is not without risk. Health insurers, for example, are already preparing for open enrollment in November. Trump’s decision to cut off federal cost-sharing reduction payments that offset subsidies for some low-income Americans covered by Obamacare is imposing new uncertainty that could lead to higher premiums.
The Alexander-Murray deal would allow the payments to continue for two years in exchange for loosening some restrictions in the healthcare law on the types of policies insurers can provide.
On immigration, Dreamers face deportation if Congress fails to meet Trump’s demand for a new strategy. In September, the president announced an end to the Obama-era program that offers those who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children temporary permits to work and remain in the country.
Trump first said he wanted to help the Dreamers stay in the U.S. — they have widespread public support — and he was willing to make a deal in exchange for border security improvements. But after criticism from anti-immigration voices in the GOP, Trump sent Congress a long list of demands that even some Republicans would not be willing to accept in a deal to protect the young immigrants.
“The president’s pointing fingers,” said Schumer, who helped negotiate the Dreamers deal with Trump. “He blames Mitch McConnell for obstruction, he blames the Democrats for obstruction. He’s the obstructionist in chief because he can’t stick to a position.”
Eventually Congress will be forced to deliver. Republicans, in particular, are worried about facing voters next year having little to show for their hold on the White House and Congress. But they are also loath to make compromises on healthcare or immigration that could anger Republican voters already upset at inaction on Trump’s many campaign promises. Tax reform is looking less likely to be completed this year.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) is opposed to the Alexander-Murray deal. "The speaker does not see anything that changes his view that the Senate should keep its focus on repeal and replace of Obamacare," spokesman Doug Andres said.
However, Ryan and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are well aware that they will need to rely on Democrats in the coming weeks on key issues — to approve disaster aid in areas hit by hurricanes and wildfires, funding to keep the government running and authority to raise the nation’s borrowing limit. Those measures probably cannot pass without Democratic support because many conservative Republicans oppose any government spending that is not offset by cuts that the majority of Congress won't support.
Some Democrats have already said they will seek a remedy for Dreamers as part of the year-end deal. Others will focus on blocking Republican priorities typically attached to must-pass bills, such as those to limit access to abortion services.
But their leverage is limited as both parties are wary of a federal shutdown, which would be unpopular with voters.
Trump could step in and lead the way, as presidents often do, or he could remain on the sidelines as Congress tries to broker outcomes on its own.
Both seem unlikely. Congress has shown it is often unable to deliver without presidential leadership, and Trump, who promised to disrupt the status quo in Washington, is unlikely to change his freewheeling, unpredictable style.