As GOP Mulls 2018 Agenda, Trump Asks Lawmakers To 'Give A Little' On Immigration

Feb 1, 2018
Originally published on February 2, 2018 1:12 am

Updated at 3:06 p.m.

Republicans are gathered at the storied Greenbrier Resort — home to a Cold War-era bunker once meant to house Congress in the event of a nuclear attack — to plot the party's legislative agenda for 2018 and strategize for what could be a bruising midterm election.

President Trump spoke to Republicans in a noon address that echoed his State of the Union speech and advised his party that in order to advance an agenda in 2018, compromise is a necessity. "We have to be willing to give a little in order for our country to gain a whole lot," he said.

However, Trump suggested that the four pillars in his administration's immigration proposal were non-negotiable despite strong opposition from Democrats over White House demands to reduce family-based immigration and eliminate the visa lottery program.

"We'll either have something that's fair and equitable and good and secure, or we're going to have nothing at all," Trump said. The president did not take questions from lawmakers.

For Republicans this year, it may be easier to look back than to plan for what's to come. On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence lauded 2017 as "the most accomplished year for the conservative agenda in 30 years." Pence touted the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, confirmation of a record number of conservative lower-court judges in the Trump administration's first year, regulation rollbacks and a $1 trillion tax cut package.

President Trump's State of the Union address provided a familiar list of proposals, but lawmakers haven't rallied around an agenda in the same way Republicans did in 2017 on health care and taxes.

Much of what President Trump outlined Tuesday night — paid family leave, overhauling the criminal justice system's sentencing laws and reducing the cost of prescription drugs — are proposals loaded with opposition from the conservative wing of the party and are unlikely to find GOP champions on Capitol Hill.

Even Trump's immigration proposal has received a lukewarm reception from Republicans in Congress because it includes a path to citizenship for an estimated 1.8 million people residing in the U.S. illegally.

On Thursday morning, Senate GOP Conference Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters that the path forward might need to be a pared-down immigration bill that only includes a legislative fix to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program and money for border security. That proposal would eliminate any changes to legal immigration sought by conservatives. "That may be the best we can hope for," Thune said.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., called a more limited bill a "non-starter" in the House. "Sen. Thune represents a state that is a long ways from the southern border, and so making a suggestion that a two pillar answer is going to get support in the House is a non-starter."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that he intends to make good on his promise to begin an open debate on immigration if Congress fails to reach a deal on immigration by Feb. 8. "I'm perfectly happy, provided the government is still open on Feb. 8, to go to the subject and to treat it in a fair way, not try to tilt the playing field in anyone's direction and we'll see who can get 60 votes," he said.

Congress is quickly coming up on the Feb. 8 deadline that will require another stopgap funding measure. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.., said Congress will need to approve the fifth stopgap measure since September because a long-term spending deal remains elusive. Democrats are withholding support for a final budget deal as leverage over the immigration talks. Lawmakers have just three legislative days to act, as the House is only scheduled to be in session through Tuesday next week in order to adjourn so House Democrats can hold their annual three-day retreat.

Infrastructure is a popular proposal with theoretical bipartisan support, but there's no consensus on the hardest part — how to pay for it. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao met with Republicans Thursday to discuss strategy. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., told reporters that he brought up "the elephant in the room" on transportation-- raising the gas tax to help pay for a bill--but that reaction was "mixed."

The president appears to have walked away from the GOP's failed efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The GOP tax bill zeroed out the tax penalty designed to compel individuals to buy health insurance, and that policy victory seems to have satisfied Trump. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has likewise said he's ready to move on from the health care fight after the Alabama Senate special election loss narrowed his majority to a razor-thin 51-49 margin.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., voiced hopes of overhauling social welfare programs in 2018, but he's been given little rhetorical backup from the White House or the Senate. The president made no mention of overhauling entitlement programs in his Tuesday address.

The three-day retreat is designed to help lawmakers figure out what, exactly, they can agree on and when they plan to act on it. The legislative pipeline so far this year has been clogged by the impasses over immigration legislation to determine the fate of those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, and a budget deal necessary for Congress to pass this fiscal year's spending bills, which are already four months overdue. The Treasury Department threw Congress another curveball this week after it informed lawmakers the deadline has been moved up to vote to raise the debt ceiling --the nation's borrowing authority — to Feb. 28.

Election-year politics are already at the forefront of lawmakers' minds here. Another prominent Republican, South Carolina's Trey Gowdy, announced his decision to retire this year. He is the 34th Republican and ninth committee chairman to retire ahead of the 2018 midterm elections where Republicans are facing historically brutal headwinds with their House majority at stake. Pence assured Republicans that he and the president would hit the campaign trail hard for down-ballot Republicans. He also said the party under Trump has already defied the "conventional wisdom" of elections and forecast that Republicans majorities would hold come November.

Pence also took advantage of the location to launch an attack on West Virginia's Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who is up for re-election in a state Trump won by more than 40 percentage points.

"When it came to cutting your taxes, Joe voted no," Pence told employees at an event at a local manufacturing company, adding that Manchin "has voted no time and again on the policies that West Virginia needs." Pence continued that attack in a series of tweets with the hashtag #JoeVotedNo highlighting Manchin's opposition to Trump's priorities, including GOP efforts to cut funds for Planned Parenthood.

Manchin responded in a statement: "The vice president's comments are exactly why Washington Sucks."

Congressional Democrats likewise hold annual policy retreats, but House and Senate Democrats meet separately. House Democrats next week will head to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Former Vice President Joe Biden is expected to give the keynote address.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Republican lawmakers were on their way to a retreat yesterday when the train that carried them crashed. The Amtrak train struck a garbage truck. No lawmakers were hurt, but one person was killed. And that was the prelude to a meeting at the luxury resort in West Virginia called The Greenbrier, a meeting that was meant to focus on the year ahead. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is near the site of that meeting. She's on the line. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: How did lawmakers respond at the moment of this train crash?

DAVIS: What is fortunate for a lot of people on the train is that there's actually a lot of doctors in Congress. So the doctors onboard and some of the non-doctors got off the train as fast as they could and tried to help with immediate medical intervention for the people that were affected in the train crash. As you said, there was one fatality. Two additional people were hospitalized. No members of Congress suffered any major injuries, although there was a number of concussions.

And there was a bit of a surreal moment in this crash because two of the lawmakers who jumped off the train were Ohio Republican Brad Wenstrup and Arizona Senate Republican Jeff Flake, two of the same lawmakers that were also at the congressional shooting last summer and were there to also apply medical care to Majority Whip Steve Scalise.

INSKEEP: Unbelievable time in Congress. And this latest incident comes at a moment when President Trump has just given his State of the Union speech. The question is, what can lawmakers try to accomplish for the year ahead? And Trump had some stuff for him. He wants an infrastructure plan. He wants paid family leave. He wants to cut the cost of prescription drugs, he says. What do Republicans in Congress think about those ideas?

DAVIS: He is probably not going to find a lot of conservative champions for causes like paid family leave or lowering the cost of prescription drugs. Anything that expands the size of the federal government or requires more government regulation doesn't really have a lot of friends in the House particularly. There's a lot of support for this idea of an infrastructure bill even across the aisle. There's just still really no idea yet of how they need to pay for it, which is the really big question.

I will say, not just because of that train accident that was sort of a rallying mood for Republicans, a somber mood, but they're coming here really unified. I mean, the mood of the party is really positive around the president. The State of the Union was a rallying moment. They're just not really quite sure yet what to do with this unity.

INSKEEP: Do they agree - are they unified on immigration?

DAVIS: That is still a tough question. You know, the immigration debate in Congress is really the logjam on 2018. Lawmakers I talked to say it's really hard to plan for the year until they figure out how they get out of this immigration debate. Part of the challenge that the president still has is making sure enough Republicans are going to get onboard behind his plan.

Especially in the House, there are a lot of immigration hardliners who just don't want to support anything that involves a path to citizenship for any number of people. So - and then the trick here is the president really needs Democrats to vote for this bill in the end. This has to be bipartisan. It's the only way it gets done. I think right now, the mood in both parties is that they're not any closer to an immigration deal.

INSKEEP: Do you get any sense of anxiety among Republicans as more and more lawmakers announced their retirements ahead of what looks like it could be a very tough election?

DAVIS: Yes. And Vice President Mike Pence came here last night. He was a keynote dinner speaker. And he gave - outlined what I think the Republican argument is going to be into 2018. He says they have a very good story to tell. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the same. They're calling 2017 the best year for the conservative cause in 30 years, pointing to things like the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, the tax cut bill they passed.

So they want to make 2018 about 2017. I don't know how hard that's going to be for them to do. But Pence also pledged to Republicans here that he and the president are going to hit the campaign trail hard for all of these down-ballot Republicans who are facing midterm election year headwinds. And he made the point that Donald Trump - the party under Donald Trump defies conventional wisdom when it comes to who wins elections. And he predicted that they would hold both their majorities in the House and in the Senate.

INSKEEP: Reminder of 2016, when Mitch McConnell told us the party was at an all-time high and people guffawed, but it turned out to be a pretty successful year for them.

DAVIS: There you go.

INSKEEP: Sue, thanks very much.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.