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Trump Joint Address Spotlights Deep Partisan Divide

Lawmakers left to interpret president's statements on pet issues

President Donald Trump greets mostly Republican members after addressing a joint session of Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump greets mostly Republican members after addressing a joint session of Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

When President Donald Trump exited the House chamber after his first address to a joint session of Congress, one half of the floor was almost completely empty.

Democrats headed for the exits after Trump wrapped up his Tuesday night speech, while Republicans stayed to applaud. The floor became the embodiment of partisan divisions that persist in Congress, especially when it comes to Democrats’ willingness to work with the bombastic new president. 

But Trump may be able to find some Democratic allies. Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., did stay in the chamber and made sure to firmly shake Trump’s hand, and they exchanged a few words.

The night started out like any other president’s annual address to Congress. The House floor buzzed in anticipation, with lawmakers milling around as bright lights illuminated the chamber. But the energy shifted as soon as Trump took the podium, and Democrats sat down while Republicans remained standing, clapping for Trump.

The event followed the usual script of members of the president’s own party standing and applauding at their partisan cues, and everyone coming together to applaud to support law enforcement and the military.

Trump’s Address to Congress in Three Minutes

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There were also some familiar shows of bipartisan seat partners. Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia was spotted on the Republican side next to GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. And Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., sat on the Democratic side next to Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, D-Mass.

But something seemed a little different. Democrats not only showed their opposition by not applauding, but at times could not refrain from outbursts of groans or sarcastic laughter, disapproving thumbs pointed down, and looks of bewilderment at what was occurring.

And some members of Trump’s own Republican Party were slow to jump to their feet, or remained seated altogether, when he spoke about immigration, increased spending and family leave.

Republicans in Congress have acknowledged that there are areas, like repealing the 2010 health care law, where they can’t count on help from Democrats. So Tuesday night they were looking for a direction from the president as they look to bridge GOP divides over the law.

Mixed messages

But Republicans on opposite sides of the debate took different messages from Trump’s speech.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he believed Trump was endorsing the House GOP leadership’s health plan, citing the president’s mention of tax credits, flexibility to states and a Medicaid transition.

But Rep. Jim Jordan, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, a cadre of conservatives who have expressed concern’s about the House plan, said he didn’t think Trump was backing the proposal.

“I did not hear that,” the Ohio Republican said. “I heard, ‘Let’s repeal and replace,’ which is what we all campaigned on.”

That was a sentiment shared by one of Jordan’s Freedom Caucus brethren. “I’ve heard a lot of spin in that direction tonight,” South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, who’s authored a conservative health care replacement plan with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, said in response to a question about McCarthy saying Trump was endorsing House leadership’s health care plan. “I think that everybody hears what they want to hear in the world of politics. I did not hear the word ‘refundable’ tax credit.

“What I’m saying is I don’t think that debate is over yet,” Sanford said.

Despite opposing interpretations, Republicans were united during the health care portion of the speech, leaping to their feet as he talked about dismantling President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement.

Democrats sat mostly stone-faced, though House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley was spotted making a winding gesture with his hand and mouthing to a colleague, “Winding them up.”

Some Democratic women, including Reps. Jackie Speier and Judy Chu, signaled “thumbs down.” The two Californians were among the group of women dressed in white to support women’s rights, who stood out in the sea of dark colored suits.

Trump’s speech did include some items that appealed more to Democrats than members of his own party, like his push for paid family leave.

As Democrats rose and applauded, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not clap, and instead said something to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas. 

Trump also called for an end to budgetary caps on defense spending, which led to a mix reaction on the GOP side.

Hawks like Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., rose to their feet. But the fiscally conservative Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky donned his glasses, and looked down at a paper in his lap.

Trump’s speech also left members of both parties asking for more details, especially on his promise to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure, which drew applause from members of both parties. 

“The details will matter” Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., said on CSPAN when asked about the infrastructure proposal.

“It’s easy figuring out how to spend money, like huge investments in our military, huge investments in our infrastructure, big tax cuts,” said the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s ranking Democrat, Thomas R. Carper, D-Del. “How that gets us closer to a balanced budget? I have no idea.”

Congressional leaders may get more details from Trump on Wednesday. The president is scheduled to meet with House and Senate leadership for lunch at the White House.

Though questions remain about specific policy proposals, lawmakers did note that Trump’s tone was different than his inauguration speech, which painted a dark picture of the country.

Carper was complimentary of Trump’s tone, which he called, “much more aspirational, much less divisive” than his inaugural address. 

“I think people looking at home suddenly have a different impression watching him tonight,” GOP Leader McCarthy said.

But some Democrats cautioned that Trump’s more subdued tone should not be overblown.

Less rhetoric, more action?

“The tone doesn’t matter,” Nevada Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen said. “I’m tired of listening to rhetoric. We want to see action.”

And, as Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., suggested, Trump’s more subdued tone may not spill over into the president’s active social media account.

“Wait for the early morning tweets,” Durbin said.

Lindsey McPherson, Niels Lesniewski, Rema Rahman and Jason Dick contributed to this report.

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