At the end of the week, Donald Trump has two big deadlines looming ― one real, and one imaginary. The real one is that the government will shut down unless Congress acts, and the imaginary one is the end of Trump’s first 100 days as president. Not content with the fact that solving the budget problem is going to be hard enough, Trump is pushing for action on two other fronts as well: tax reform and health care reform. He wants a big win to brag about when he reaches 100 days, but he might just be setting himself up for failure across the board.
The only task in the week ahead where Trump will definitely be able to claim some sort of success is a completely arbitrary one he set for himself. At the end of last week, Trump surprised many (including some within his own administration) by announcing he’d be unveiling his tax reform plan on Wednesday. Since this won’t require congressional action, if he makes this announcement on time, he can claim he “got it done” ― even though tax reform will be far from finished.
Trump now complains about the expectations for his first 100 days, but he really only has himself to blame. Prior to becoming president, he explicitly bragged about how much he’d get done in this period. He even laid out his plans in a document, with ten things he was going to accomplish. Of that list, he has only even attempted a single item, and that ended in legislative failure. So by rolling out his tax plan, he could at least claim some sort of progress on at least one of the list of things that were supposed to all have been fully accomplished by now. He may be failing to meet high expectations, but it’s hard to feel sorry for him when he himself was the one who set the expectations so high, in other words.
The White House is already hedging on the upcoming tax plan announcement, by telling reporters it will not be an actual bill that could be introduced in Congress, but rather a general overview of how Trump wants to change the tax system. There may be few solid numbers in his tax plan, which may consist of rather vague generalities. Today, however, the White House leaked that their new corporate income tax rate will be 15 percent, as Trump promised on the campaign trail. He’s also indicated he wants a huge middle-class tax cut as well, all of which is guaranteed to blow a multi-trillion-dollar hole in the budget. Exploding deficits and a growing national debt weren’t exactly Trump campaign promises (he promised to solve both problems lickety-split, in fact), but once again Republicans will all start chanting the mantra of “tax cuts pay for themselves,” despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.
Trump now complains about the expectations for his first 100 days, but he really only has himself to blame.
But that debate will happen later, of course. Trump just wants the press to pay attention to his announcement; he doesn’t really care when it will actually happen or what any tax reform bill Congress sends him actually says. The announcement will be completed before the 100-day milestone, and that’s all that really matters to Trump this week. He could release a one-page list of bullet points with few specifics, and he’d consider that a success.
On the other agenda items Trump has set for himself, however, success by any measure isn’t going to come as easily. Paul Ryan is already indicating he’s in no mood to dive back into the roiling, shark-infested waters of health care reform this week, which is probably a smart move on his part. Trump is reportedly still seething that Ryancare 1.0 failed so miserably in the House, and so he’s been pushing a 2.0 version that is somehow supposed to bridge the ideological gap between Tea Partiers and GOP moderates. This gap may be fundamentally unbridgeable, though, since any movement towards one side is going to mean a loss of support on the other.
Trump wanted to swoop in, cut a deal, and then have the House pass a bill so he could loudly claim he had “repealed and replaced Obamacare” before his 100 days were up. This wouldn’t have been true (there is this thing called “the Senate,” after all), but he at least would have had one legislative accomplishment to tout.
This plan started unraveling almost immediately. So far, no actual deal has been cut. It was supposed to be in place last Thursday, and then by Saturday House Republicans were supposed to all get behind it. Neither happened. So now Trump faces failure of one type or another on his last-minute health care reform push. The bill either won’t exist (if no deal is ever cut), or it won’t be voted on before the 100 days mark is hit, or it’ll come up for a vote and fail. Ryan probably wouldn’t let that last one happen, so what is most likely is that Republicans will keep squabbling about how awful to make their Ryancare 2.0 bill ― leaving “dealmaker-in-chief” Trump with more egg on his face.
The one thing that Congress has to do this week is hammer out yet another continuing resolution on the budget, to keep the lights on past Friday night. Little attention was being paid in the media, but before Trump got involved an extraordinary thing was happening behind the scenes ― Democratic and Republican leaders were actually working something out that both parties could live with, so there would be a “clean” budget bill all ready to go. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell might have allowed some brinksmanship from their own radicals, but then when the deadline ran out, they’d have the solution already in hand. This is a noticeable improvement to the way Republicans had been doing things, which was to let the deadline arrive before even starting negotiations with the Democrats on what a clean bill would consist of.
None of this was exactly “the way Congress is supposed to work,” since by definition that would have to include “pass budgets on time, so you don’t need continuing resolutions at all.” But at least it was progress; both parties working ahead of the deadline to hammer an agreement out. But then Trump decided to get involved.
Trump immediately made one big demand and one big threat. He demanded at least a down-payment on building his border wall (which wasn’t even supposed to have been necessary if you believed Trump-the-candidate, since Mexico was supposed to be cheerfully footing the entire bill). If he didn’t get these funds, Trump threatened to withhold necessary payments into the Obamacare system. “Nice health insurance you got here,” in other words, “it’d be a shame if something were to happen to it.”
How far down this path Trump wants to go is an open question. If Congress passes a clean bill, will Trump sign it if it doesn’t have any border wall money? Congress could even conceivably pass such a bill without Trump, if they got a veto-proof supermajority in both chambers (this is somewhat farfetched, but it could happen if the bill was neutral enough). Administration officials on the Sunday political shows were not willing to say whether Trump would veto a budget bill with no wall money or not, and may have left the door open to a partial solution (boosting Border Patrol funding but with no money for the wall, essentially). This would allow both Democrats and Trump to at least claim partial victory, so it might actually happen.
If Trump does veto a clean bill, then he could end his 100 days by shutting down the government. That would be a massive embarrassment for him, and merely continue the storyline of an inept president who just doesn’t know how to get anything done in Washington. That’s already the storyline for Trump’s first 100 days, since other than getting a Supreme Court justice confirmed, Trump hasn’t managed to get Congress to do anything big at all.
... Other than getting a Supreme Court justice confirmed, Trump hasn’t managed to get Congress to do anything big at all.
Trump envisioned a week of one success after another, to prove he’s been awesome in his first 100 days. So far, that isn’t looking possible. Ryancare 2.0 hasn’t even appeared yet, meaning the House isn’t likely to vote on it (or even talk about it) this week. Trump will roll out some sort of tax plan on Wednesday, one that seems pretty much guaranteed to give enormous tax breaks to corporations and blow an enormous hole in the budget. We might be headed back to the days of trillion-dollar deficits each year, for as far as the eye can see. It remains to be seen how popular such a plan will be with the public, so even Trump’s “success” at making his announcement before the 100-days deadline might turn out to be not as successful as he thought when people react to his plan.
If Trump had just sat back and done nothing, the chances were pretty good that Congress was actually going to pass a clean budget bill by the end of the week and keep the government running. Now that he’s inserted himself into the process, this is at risk. Democrats aren’t united over everything these days, but on opposing Trump’s border wall they certainly are. Even many Republicans in Congress don’t support the wall, which means Trump might not even be able to get such funding through the Republican-led House, at this point. If Ryan and McConnell ignore Trump and pass a clean bill, Trump could even veto it and singlehandedly cause a government shutdown.
Maybe he could turn all of this into his own version of bragging. We already know the White House is going to attempt the old “tax cuts pay for themselves” con job, and Republicans have been falling for that one since Ronald Reagan was in office. Trump’s already admitted that Ryancare 2.0 probably won’t happen this week, so he could say “it’s coming soon” to explain away his failure to cut a last-minute deal. And maybe he’ll just end the week by tweeting: “I shut down the government faster than any other president!!!” Or perhaps: “People were getting tired of all the winning, so I thought I’d bring things to a halt so everyone can catch their breath!” It wouldn’t surprise me in the least, at this point.
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