WASHINGTON — Flailing and divided, congressional Republicans are hoping for clarity from President Donald Trump on key issues like health care when he delivers his first speech to a joint meeting of Congress. It comes as Republicans are discovering, a month into Trump's administration, how difficult it will be to make good on their many promises now that they control Washington in full.
The GOP's long-stated plans to repeal former President Barack Obama's health care law and replace it with something better are running into major difficulties even before legislation is officially released. After a week of raucous town hall meetings, Republicans are back in Washington and key conservatives have begun to denounce House leadership plans based on a leaked draft and reports that the bill would cost more than expected while covering fewer people than the Affordable Care Act.
"That dog doesn't hunt," GOP Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, declared flatly of a central element of the plan, tax credits extended regardless of income.
Asked whether Republicans were nearing consensus on the overall legislation, Meadows said: "I think we're a long way from that."
Another influential conservative, GOP Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, released a statement warning that "There are serious problems with what appears to be our current path to repeal and replace Obamacare."
GOP leaders and aides insisted that no final decisions have been made and plans remain on track.
"We must repeal and replace Obamacare and that is top of our list this spring," House Speaker Paul Ryan said after meeting at the White House with Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday. "We will replace it with a law that's better, that's more durable, that lowers costs, improves access to more affordable plans."
But in the face of the divisions, several House Republicans said they would like to hear Trump sketch a clear vision, or better yet an endorsement of their plan, when he addresses Congress Tuesday night. Ahead of the speech, Republicans had little clarity about what Trump was going to say on the topic. Trump himself remarked Monday that "Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated."
"What the president can say is that the plan that gets presented to the conference is the one you need to vote 'yes' on," said GOP Rep. Bill Flores of Texas. "That's how he can be helpful."
Yet health care is far from the only issue dividing Republicans. Plans to overhaul the tax code have Republicans tied in knots, while Trump's promised increases in infrastructure spending promise to provoke major clashes with deficit hawks. A government funding deadline looms two months away and must be met to keep the government from shutting down. And, senior lawmakers were busy throwing cold water on Trump's budget proposal, which was made public in broad outlines on Monday. The budget envisions a huge $54 billion surge in U.S. military spending while slashing domestic programs and foreign aid.
GOP Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, said that the budget as presented could not possibly pass the House.
"No, no. There's a lot of members that have a lot of interest in a lot of these programs," Simpson said. "There's more to our government than just defense."
Yet for defense hawks, Trump's Pentagon spending didn't go far enough. Sen. John McCain of Arizona complained that Trump's plans represented just a small increase over Obama's recent Pentagon wish list.
And, Trump's budget would leave large deficits intact while sparing Social Security and Medicare, the entitlements that make up an enormous and growing share of the federal budget. That puts Trump in direct conflict with Ryan and other leading Republicans who've long advocated reforming entitlement programs to put them on a more sustainable footing and get deficits under control.
It's unclear how that conflict will get resolved, but several Republicans said Trump would have to address Medicare and even Social Security despite campaign promises to spare them.
"If you want to balance the budget, if you want to increase defense spending, at some point in time you've got to touch entitlements," Simpson said. "All you've got to do is look at the numbers. This is not rocket science."