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White House to Congress: Address Health Care, Debt Ceiling by August

Aide: Trump would take tax cuts only if more sweeping measure not possible

President Donald Trump has signaled he wants the health care and debt ceiling debates over before lawmakers' August recess. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
President Donald Trump has signaled he wants the health care and debt ceiling debates over before lawmakers' August recess. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

White House officials are pressing lawmakers to pass bills that would replace the 2010 health care law and raise the debt ceiling before they leave for their August break, clearing the fall months for tax overhaul and government spending fights.

President Donald Trump intends to discuss Republicans’ “path forward” on a health care overhaul and his proposed tax package during a Tuesday afternoon meeting at the executive mansion, said Marc Short, White House legislative affairs director.

Short declined to take a position on House conservatives’ call that the debt ceiling measure be tied to federal funding cuts. He did, however, suggest Trump would settle for tax cuts if there’s insufficient consensus on Capitol Hill for a more sweeping tax policy overhaul.

Lawmakers “need to raise [the] debt ceiling before they leave for the summer,” Short said Monday evening, adding White House officials have given such a timeline to senior members. Asked to clarify the White House’s preferred deadline, Short replied: “We’re looking at before they adjourn for the August recess.”

As often is the case inside Trump’s circle, top aides appear split over the shape of debt ceiling legislation. White House chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney have said they would consider attaching spending cuts and other GOP-favored provisions. But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has called for a “clean” bill to raise the borrowing limit.

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Short sidestepped a question about including spending cuts in a borrowing limit bill, saying only that he looks forward to working with lawmakers to find the “right vehicle” to raise the debt ceiling.

On the other issue the White House wants to see action on before August break, health care, Short used Trump-like language to describe the 2010 law pushed by the Obama administration. He dubbed it an “unaffordable disaster” that has spawned a crisis with a shrinking number of insurance providers in many states and ever-rising costs.

But he declined to discuss specifics, saying only that Tuesday’s meeting with GOP leaders is, in part, intended to chart a path on “how we end this nightmare.”

Should lawmakers complete work on the health care and debt ceiling bills before they depart Washington for a five-week summer sojourn, the White House wants leaders to turn to a tax bill and work on finishing fiscal 2018 spending bills. Notably, Trump’s promised $1 trillion measure to revamp the country’s infrastructure was not on the Short list for the remainder of this calendar year, though he expects some work on it before 2017 ends.

On a tax measure, the Trump administration would prefer that it be revenue neutral, Short said. But if that or another issue should trip up a broad package on tax rates and policy, he signaled Trump would accept a bill featuring only lower rates because officials — including the president — believe what the economy needs to ramp up growth is to “get a tax cut.”

While the health care effort is a Republican-only lift, the White House expects some Democrats to come to the table on a tax bill. In fact, Short said meetings with Democratic groups like the House’s Blue Dog coalition of moderates already have begun. He expects that to continue, and for Trump himself to be “very engaged in working with Democrats” later this year.

Short also was asked about Trump’s previous statements about Washington needing another government shutdown to alter its often-dysfunctional ways and whether the president might use that stance as leverage come the end of September, when government funding will expire.

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“I don’t think anybody is in favor of a government shutdown,” Short said. “You will see him (Trump) very engaged this fall,” especially when it comes to advocating for two of his top spending priorities: increasing defense spending and securing more dollars for border security. The latter would, though Short did not mention it, possibly provide funds for Trump’s promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“He views it as all options for leverage are on the table,” Short told reporters. “But he doesn’t want a shutdown.”

The early evening briefing also included discussion of how Trump began his Monday: a tweetstorm attacking his own Justice Department and the mayor of London.

Short demurred, telling reporters that he finds the president “very effective” when he helps with discussions with members. The legislative affairs boss said it’s better for the administration’s agenda when Trump is directly engaging lawmakers.

Asked whether Trump’s tweets about the Russia election-meddling scandal and other matters is a distraction to getting things done on the Hill, Short described Trump as a candidate who “won the election by being someone who’s not a conformist candidate” and who lacks “a conventional style.”