Amidst all the continuing distractions emanating from the White House these days (I.Q. tests, the N.F.L., World War III, etc.), something interesting and unprecedented has happened in the past few weeks: The Trump administration has begun actual negotiations with Congress, on two contentious issues. It’s rather astonishing when you think about it, but this is actually the first time such a thing has happened since Trump took office.
Perhaps it is due to John Kelly’s influence, but whatever the reason, over the past month or so the White House has gotten much more engaged on actual legislative policy. Up until this point, Trump was content to let Congress do all the heavy lifting and just sit back and wait for bills to appear on his desk for him to sign. This, quite obviously, hasn’t worked out so well for Trump, as no bills appeared at all, even with a Congress firmly in Republican hands.
Donald Trump promised, on the campaign trail, that he alone had the greatest healthcare reform plan known to mankind, and that it would cover everybody at a cheaper cost, with better insurance. Obviously, he was flat-out lying, because he had no idea what he wanted in “Trumpcare,” just that it successfully “repealed and replaced Obamacare.” The only thing Trump added to the debate was a sense of urgency, by refusing to let Congress move on after their initial failure to pass anything. Trump let it be known that this was at the top of his priorities list, and Congress reluctantly spent another half-year wasting everyone’s time proving that they couldn’t agree among themselves at all.
What was notable in its absence during all of this was any sort of indication what Trump even wanted in the legislation, other than having a bill to sign at the end. The only other thing Congress did during this period was to pass necessary measures on the budget, which meant accepting pretty much everything the Democrats proposed, since congressional Republicans (once again) couldn’t agree among themselves what to do. But the White House never got involved in any of the details in any meaningful way.
The last of these agreements was the most stunning, mostly for how public it quickly became and how much of a slap in the face it was to the Republican leadership in Congress. Trump, in a meeting, agreed with “Chuck and Nancy” on their proposal, soundly rejected “Paul and Mitch’s” ideas, and a bill was on his desk to sign within two days’ time. But again, the White House had little input in the process other than to make the final decision and push Congress to act immediately.
Since then, two notable legislative efforts have begun. In both of these, the White House seems a lot more engaged in the process, in different ways. On tax cuts, the Trump administration worked with Republicans in Congress exclusively, and after eight or nine months finally put out a wish list (not a legislative draft, or even a fully-fleshed out plan). But negotiations had happened, and intraparty compromises had taken place, to some extent.
This really shouldn’t be all that notable. This is how the process is really supposed to work, in other words. Republicans can pass tax cuts with their slim majorities, and if there’s one issue Republicans should be able to agree upon, it surely must be cutting wealthy people’s taxes once again. But again, what is notable here is that the process is actually happening ― the first time Trump has tried to work things out before big contentious debates among Republicans in Congress begin.
The second instance is even more interesting. After Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi’s spectacular success with the debt ceiling/budget/hurricane relief bill, they sat down for some Chinese food with Trump, with no Republicans present. At this dinner, a deal was reportedly struck on fixing the DACA situation Trump had created. Or, at the very least, a deal to make a deal was struck. Or something. Accounts began differing almost immediately as to what was actually agreed upon. What all parties did seem to agree upon was that the sooner this deal could be passed, the better.
Last Sunday, the Trump White House made their opening bid. It was, to put it mildly, not exactly what Chuck and Nancy expected. The dinner deal, according to them, was to essentially pass the original DREAM Act, which would have legalized the Dreamers and given them an eventual path to citizenship. In exchange, Trump would not get any money for his wall, but would get a boost in border security in the form of more Border Patrol agents and assets (but, again, no wall). This would not be comprehensive immigration reform, it would instead be a narrowly-tailored deal to address the DACA repeal and give Trump a boost in border security to brag about.
Trump reportedly gave the task of coming up with the administration’s position to Stephen Miller, who (unlike Steve Bannon) still has a job at the White House despite his rather extreme views. The result was about what you’d expect ― a total rejection of the deal that Trump originally agreed to. At the top of the list was full funding for the wall. The rest of the proposal is a right-wing wish list of anti-immigration priorities, none of which was even discussed in the dinner meeting. Legal immigration would be drastically reduced, including a crackdown on Central American minors. Grants to sanctuary cities would be cut. And, for the Dreamers, no path to citizenship at all. They’d live here the rest of their lives without being able to participate in the democratic process by voting, in other words.
Although pretty ham-handed, this does represent the first time the White House has actually tried any legislative deal-making with the Democrats. Unlike the tax proposal, this is a debate between the Trump White House and Chuck and Nancy.
Schumer and Pelosi, of course, have not only rejected the proposal out of hand, they have expressed their outrage over what was included. They have a right to be angry, because this isn’t even in the same ballpark as what they discussed with Trump at their dinner. There are cries within the Democratic caucus to refuse to support any budget in December without a DACA resolution (which might lead to a government shutdown or even a debt ceiling crisis). So far, the Democratic leadership hasn’t supported this effort, but that it exists at all tells you how deeply insulted some Democrats are by the White House proposal.
Perhaps (as some are pondering) this is just the White House’s “opening bid.” If that is true, then Democrats should follow through and release their own priorities list ― including a list of items which are deal-breakers for them. “Any bill cannot include the following, or it will garner no Democratic support...” in other words. Perhaps this will become a standard political negotiation, and some narrow compromise can still be achieved. Perhaps it will blow up in everyone’s faces, too.
But however things shake out, the interesting thing that few are noticing is that the Trump administration ― after almost ten months in office ― is finally involving itself in the legislative process in a meaningful way. Up until this point, their involvement has been limited to Trump pressuring Congress to get something ― anything ― done, and get it on his desk to sign, no matter what it contains. On both taxes and the Dreamers, though, the White House is finally making the attempt to use the levers of power the way they have traditionally been used. Perhaps Trump has learned that just shoving a bill through and threatening everyone to vote for it just hasn’t worked and isn’t likely to work any time soon. Or perhaps it is Chief of Staff John Kelly’s influence. Whatever the cause, though, and however the process ends, the fact that the process even exists is what is noteworthy, for the Trump White House.
<em>Chris Weigant blogs at: </em><br /><a href=“http://chrisweigant.com” title=“ChrisWeigant.com”><img src=“http://www.chrisweigant.com/cw/wp-content/themes/crispy2/pix/cwlogo.jpg” alt=“ChrisWeigant.com” height=“29” width=“160″ /></a>
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