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While Trump’s Away, Congress Legislates?

President’s absence eases tax bill work, some Republicans say

Some Republican members say progress on a tax bill is more likely with President Donald Trump, here with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, away in Asia. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Some Republican members say progress on a tax bill is more likely with President Donald Trump, here with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, away in Asia. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump spent the first four days of his Asia swing focused on countering North Korea and bolstering trade relationships — and some Republican members who are eager to pass a tax bill are just fine with that.

The way they see it, Trump being nearly 7,000 miles away for most of the next two weeks will allow them to make more progress on their tax legislation than if he were in Washington. That’s because Trump is often hunkered down in the White House watching cable news reports about their efforts, his phone at the ready to fire off a tweet that could substantially delay or completely derail their work.

GOP members in recent days have acknowledged that the president’s out-of-the-blue tweets and phone calls to certain members at all hours are not always helpful to the legislative process. Trump’s tweets in particular often bring course-altering policy demands — some even amounting to flip-flops by the president — that could throw his party’s own tax writers into scramble mode, especially as they race to meet a Thanksgiving deadline for the House to finish its bill.

[After Controversies, Members Want Kelly to Avoid Spotlight]

While response from GOP lawmakers interviewed for this article was mixed, many were candid in saying Trump’s absence is something of a blessing as they get down to the complicated details of reworking the tax code.

Watch: Can Republicans Find Focus on Tax Reform with Trump in Asia?

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“It’s a diversion,” said Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, a former governor, referring to Trump’s tweets. “And, in that regard, counterproductive. Legislative bodies are easily diverted.” 

New York Rep. Peter T. King, who is leaning no on the tax bill but has been a guest of Trump’s on Air Force One, said the president’s policy demand tweets “can upset the flow” of GOP members’ work on major bills.

“It’s a mixed blessing,” King said of Trump’s tendency to weigh in on legislation at critical junctures. On the one hand, they get a clear view of what it would take to garner his signature; on the other, it can push them back a step or two.

Another such key moment will come next week, when House GOP leaders insist their tax bill will reach the chamber floor. Trump is slated to return to Washington late next week, perhaps just as the House is preparing to vote. That timing worries some GOP members, including King.

Anything is possible when it comes to what Trump might tweet as his attention on the flight home turns from negotiating with world leaders to the House tax bill — “especially if he calls the bill mean,” King said with a smirk, referring to Trump’s description in the spring of a House-passed health care bill. Trump had wholeheartedly endorsed that effort before switching course and slamming it as the Senate worked on its own version.

Even those who say Trump’s tactics are not a major distraction, such as House Ways and Means member Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, acknowledged that presidential tweets make an impact.

“I know that he’s speaking to a larger constituency,” Meehan said Tuesday, referring to the president’s 42.1 million Twitter followers as he headed into the panel’s second day of marking up the tax bill. “But we’ve got to get things through the House and the Senate.”

When the president is in Washington, he monitors the direction Republican lawmakers are heading on major bills closely via his cable news appetite and by working the phones.

Often, he fixates on an idea that is dominating that day’s cable television narrative or being pushed by an ally that would allow him to achieve one major goal and a smaller one.

A prime example came last Wednesday.

Trump threw congressional Republican tax writers a curveball, suddenly voicing support for using the tax measure to repeal the 2010 health care law’s individual insurance mandate. That idea has been pushed hard by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, with whom the president has met several times in recent weeks.

Trump let GOP tax writers know at the same time he did the world, using a tweet to signal his desire that the repeal make it into the bill. That single social media action complicated life for House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady.

On Tuesday, the Texas Republican left open the possibility that a repeal of the individual mandate could eventually make it into the GOP’s tax overhaul.

He did so after Trump was joined by conservative House Republicans in pushing for its inclusion. Members of the House Freedom Caucus on Monday discussed the idea of using revenue from the mandate repeal to make some of the individual tax benefits retroactive to the start of 2017.

“I have been asked to consider it,” Brady said during a radio interview, “and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

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Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski told reporters Tuesday that adding issues related to the health care law to a tax package would make “a complicated discussion even more complicated.”

Still, other Republican members said the president’s absence likely will not provide a boost to the tax bill process in either chamber, as Senate Republicans work largely behind the scenes on their version.

“I don’t think it helps. We all met with him last week” during the Senate GOP conference lunch last Tuesday at the Capitol, Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, an early Trump ally, said Tuesday as he headed for an event on the tax push.

“He’s very much engaged even now on the phone from over there. He’s given us our marching orders, which is to get both of these bills done by Thanksgiving and on his desk before Christmas,” Perdue said, adding he has not received a call from Trump since the president left last Friday but knows other GOP members have. And he pointed out that senior Trump advisers have been in constant touch with members as they try to meet the president’s deadlines.

Meehan echoed that sentiment, saying, “I don’t think it changes the dynamic at all — the president has been very supportive on the principles of the bill from the beginning.”

Of Trump’s 180-degree policy shifts via Twitter, Meehan said, “I’m glad that he’s not afraid to let us know where he wants to go.”

Lindsey McPherson and Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.

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