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7 Ways Trump’s Arizona Speech Complicates Congress’ Fall Agenda

President threatens a shutdown, criticizes senators and their chamber’s rules

President Donald and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, pictured shaking hands after Trump's address to Congress in February, are at odds over willingness to shutdown the government and change the Senate's filibuster rules. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Donald and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, pictured shaking hands after Trump's address to Congress in February, are at odds over willingness to shutdown the government and change the Senate's filibuster rules. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Short on legislative accomplishments so far in his tenure, President Donald Trump went out of his way to complicate Congress’ fall legislative agenda during a campaign-style rally in Phoenix, Arizona, on Tuesday.

Here are seven ways in just that one speech that Trump said things that don’t bode well for his ability to work with Congress:

1. Shutdown threat

Little more than a month before the Sept. 30 deadline for funding the government into the next fiscal year, Trump threatened to shut down the government if Congress doesn’t agree to fund the border wall he repeatedly promised to build — and have Mexico pay for — during the campaign.

“The obstructionist Democrats would like us not to do it, but believe me, if we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall,” he said.

This didn’t seem to intimidate Democrats, several of whom took to Twitter to emphasize that they will continue to fight against the wall.

Democrats have said border wall funds are a nonstarter for appropriations negotiations. They would likely welcome Trump to force a shutdown over the issue, as the GOP would undoubtedly be blamed for it.

Republican congressional leaders have promised there will not be a shutdown, putting them in a position to have to stand against Trump unless they find some extreme leverage that would get Democrats agree to fund the wall.

Trump acknowledging he’s willing to force a shutdown actually increases Democrats’ strength heading into the negotiations.

2. Filibuster fluster

While Trump has made clear for months that he’d like to see an end to the legislative filibuster, he suggested in repeating that call Tuesday that his agenda will be stalled without it.

“If they don’t do that, then they’re just wasting time,” he said of GOP leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom Trump referenced briefly Tuesday as he began a tangent about the Senate’s failure to repeal the 2010 health care law, is against moving to a 51-vote threshold for legislation.

Trump brought up his desire to end the filibuster right after he threatened to let the government shut down without his border wall funding, indicating he still maintains his belief he tweeted in May that the country “needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix this mess,” a reference to Senate Democrats’ ability to filibuster legislation.

Trying to link his interest in removing the filibuster to government funding is dangerous politics and not likely to win him any allies in the Senate.

3. Reconciliation regret

In lamenting the health care bill’s failure in the Senate, Trump took a shot at the budget reconciliation process, saying it “doesn’t matter; it’s a trick.”

The phrase came before Trump went on to explain that reconciliation rules prevented Republicans from including some policy ideas the GOP universally agrees on in the health care bill.

But his choice of words is not helpful as the GOP is looking to use the reconciliation process again to advance a tax overhaul bill — and likely other GOP fiscal policy priorities, so long as Republicans maintain control of the government but fall short of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

To many tax policy experts, reconciliation is “a trick” in the sense that it’s very difficult to craft tax legislation that can be enacted into law permanently.

The budget rules would require tax cuts to sunset if the tax bill loses revenue outside of the 10-year budget window, meaning Republicans will need to fully offset their tax plan within a decade if they want the tax cuts to last.

Trump’s administration has made clear this principle of revenue neutrality this is not a priority for them, and Trump’s comment about reconciliation Tuesday will only reinforce that perception.

4. ‘One vote’ understatement

Speaking of health care, Trump repeated during his speech that it was just “one vote” that prevented Congress from repealing the 2010 health care law.

Had Senate Republicans secured that additional vote, which was for a so-called “skinny repeal” measure, there actually would have been several more steps in the process.

Senators still would have needed to vote a final version of their bill had they passed the skinny repeal amendment to get the health care overhaul measure to a conference committee with the House. And if the conference committee was able to reach an agreement, both the House and Senate would have to pass it before Trump could sign it into law.

Trump’s simplification of the process underscores a frustration that McConnell shared at a Rotary Club event in Kentucky earlier this month: “Our new president, of course, has not been in this line of work before. And I think he had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process.”

Trump continuing to point blame at the Senate and understate how close Republicans were to passing the health care bill will only add to that frustration, which many Senate Republicans share, and make it harder for the already-tense health care negotiations to bear fruit

5. Unnamed enemies

If Trump does want to complete health care or any other items on his agenda, he might want to stop attacking senators whose votes he will need.

Obviously Trump’s advisers know this, because he admitted Tuesday they asked him not to call anyone out by name in his speech.

So he didn’t. He just criticized Arizona’s two Republican senators while in their home state without using their names.

The aforementioned “one vote” line on the health care bill was a not-so-subtle reference to Sen. John McCain, who shocked his party by voting against the skinny repeal. He urged the Arizona crowd to talk to their senator about getting the health care bill done.

And after recently tweeting his support for Sen. Jeff Flake’s primary challenger, Trump took another dig at Arizona’s “other senator” without naming him: “Nobody knows who the hell he is.”

Trump left no doubt who he was referring to on Wednesday morning, saying he was “not a fan of Jeff Flake.”

6. Insulting potential partners

As Trump suggested he can’t rely on members of his own party to help pass his agenda, he said he hopes Democrats “who will lose their election” will work with him to pass tax cuts. 

Trump’s comment echoes those of White House officials who have said they believe red state Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2018 will be interested in helping Republicans cut taxes. Depending on the contents of the yet-undrafted GOP plan, it’s not a completely unrealistic scenario. 

But Trump is not going to convince Democrats to partner with him by stating they will lose their elections, or by calling them obstructions.

7. Stirring controversy

Another way in which Trump will continue to isolate himself from Democrats, and likely many Republicans, is continuing to stir the pot on Charlottesville. 

Trump spent much of the first half of his Phoenix rally attacking the media for misrepresenting his views on white supremacists protesting the removal a Confederate statute in Charlottesville that turned violent.

To emphasize his point, the president read from the three different statements he provided following the unrest that led to the death of one counter-protester. However, he excluded his previous remarks that blame was shared “on many sides,” and that there were “very fine people” among both sets of protesters

In continuing to avoid any acknowledgement of his controversial remarks — which drew rebukes from Democrats and Republicans — Trump is adding fuel to the fire.

His misstep on Charlottesville consumed much of the political oxygen over the past week and a half since the incident. There is not much else happening in Washington during the August recess, and if Trump keeps speaking on Charlottesville without apologizing, it will create a cloud over Congress come September. 

Democrats already don’t want to work with Trump, and only dug their heels in deeper after his reaction to Charlottesville. Republicans, however, need him to sign legislation and are already struggling to walk the tightrope of condemning his inflammatory comments without attacking him personally

— John T. Bennett contributed to this report.

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