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GOP Unity Goals Tested as Trump Arrives at Retreat

President moves on immigration actions, while lawmakers focus elsewhere

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s press briefing plays on C-SPAN as House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune walk off stage at the GOP retreat in Philadelphia on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s press briefing plays on C-SPAN as House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune walk off stage at the GOP retreat in Philadelphia on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

PHILADELPHIA — President Donald Trump is headed to the joint Republican retreat Thursday, where he will try to bridge the divide between the White House and the GOP-controlled Congress. But if Day One of the gathering was any indication, reaching consensus on some issues will be not be easy. 

Take immigration, an issue that has dogged Congress for years, and one that became central to Trump’s campaign. The president moved forward Wednesday with executive orders regarding immigration. But at the GOP retreat, addressing immigration issues was not a top priority, particularly compared to health care, taxes and even passing appropriations bills.

Trump’s executive orders involved redirecting taxpayer money to fund a wall at the southern border, increasing resources for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and barring federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities that do not comply with federal immigration laws.

[Trump Orders Taxpayer Funds to Pay For Border Wall]

The swift action just days after the inauguration signals border security and immigration issues are top priorities for Trump. The border wall was his signature campaign promise, and he also promised that Mexico would pay for its construction. 

But Republican members of Congress appeared less willing to wade into the thorny issue of overhauling the immigration system as quickly as Trump.

When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan presented their 200-day agenda to the lawmakers Wednesday afternoon, members in the room said immigration was not a key priority.

[Ryan Lays Out Ambitious 200-Day Agenda]

“They laid out an aggressive timeline on a whole bunch of issues. I don’t recall seeing much on immigration,” Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent told reporters. 

Asked if it was a problem that Trump and Congress were addressing immigration issues separately, Dent responded, “That was only the first session. I’m sure we’re probably going to get into it at some point here.”

Dent and Rep. Chris Collins of New York, a Trump ally, did say that Ryan referenced working on a supplemental government spending bill related to defense or border security, which could include funding for the border wall. 


“We’re going to pay for it and front the money up,” Ryan told MSNBC’s Greta Van Susteren. Ryan said there are ways for Mexico to contribute to the wall’s construction, noting that it was one of Trump’s promises.


“We agree with that goal and we will be working with him to finance construction of the physical barrier on the southern border,” the speaker said. Mexican leaders, who are soon due in Washington for a visit with the new president, have scoffed at the notion.


Though Trump chose to act quickly on immigration, the GOP leaders instead signaled the swiftest action in Congress could be on repealing the 2010 health care law by the end of March and overhauling the tax code by August. 


Sen. John Thune, the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said GOP lawmakers are united with the White House on repealing and replacing the health care law, overhauling the tax code and rolling back government regulations. But the South Dakota Republican acknowledged that Congress may not be in sync with the White House on messaging just yet.


“Obviously, a transition is underway here. I expect you’ll see probably better coordination with time,” Thune said. “We believe we will be working mostly with the administration, in consultation with them, on all the issues that I mentioned.”

That apparently didn’t happen as news broke Wednesday that the White House was considering a review of the effectiveness of interrogation techniques.

[Torture Talk Clouds GOP Retreat]

“Those issues are settled law. Congress has spoken,” Thune said, when asked about the possibility of the U.S. government reopening so-called black sites to torture suspected terrorists. Questions about torture and the president’s continued pushing of falsehoods about widespread voter fraud clouded the the retreat’s kickoff by Thune and his House counterpart, Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington.


Still, the president’s swift deployment of executive actions was welcome news to some GOP members of Congress.

“I think that the president is moving so fast that it’s hard for you guys to keep up sometimes, frankly,” said Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. “I think you’ve seen just an unbelievable amount of doing what he said he would do, producing every single day the kinds of executive action that the voters of this country have sought and asked for and put him in office to do.”

Regardless of the distractions, the Republicans in charge of Congress are hoping to leave the retreat with a unified vision on what they can achieve, especially when faced with procedural hurdles in the Senate that require some bipartisan cooperation on legislation. 

“That’s why we’re here, [it] is to see where we’re aligned, where we’re not aligned, and get a sense of what the House can do, what the Senate can do,” Dent said. “I hope that we have members walking out of here with a realistic expectation about what can get on the president’s desk.”

In the meantime, Trump will likely continue to act on his own when he can. And, for Collins, that would be all right. He said Congress did not need to act in concert with Trump when it comes to immigration.

“He’s calling the shots,” Collins said. 

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