As James Comey testimony looms, Trump tries to cobble together legislative plans

Former FBI director James Comey will testify Thursday for the first time since Trump fired him in May.

WASHINGTON – Amid low approval ratings, disputatious tweetstorms, and the looming congressional testimony of fired FBI director James Comey, President Trump is trying to move forward on something basic to all administrations: a legislative agenda.

Trump held meetings Wednesday with Republican members of Congress to try to build momentum on proposals such as health care, which is stalled on Capitol Hill, and his highly touted tax reform plan and infrastructure upgrades, which don't yet have any specific bills written to allow them to move through Congress.

"We're going to get to work and get it done," Trump said at a meeting with GOP House and Senate leaders, pledging action on health care, tax reform, infrastructure and border security, including a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Republicans have a majority in both the House and Senate, but Trump's major priorities are having trouble making it through Capitol Hill.

In addition to opposition from congressional Democrats — who have the numbers to block many bills in the Senate in any case — Trump's congressional plans face an array on obstacles. They range from Trump-generated political distractions, especially on Twitter, to the ongoing congressional and FBI investigation of possible links between Trump's presidential campaign last year and Russians who sought to influence the election by hacking Democrats.

"There's a legislative program?" joked Jennifer Duffy, senior editor with The Cook Political Report, adding that "there's a level of disorganization" at the White House that has created problems in dealing with Congress.

Perhaps the biggest distraction, at least in the short term: Comey's testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, a session expected to dwell at length on the Russia investigation that the Trump White House acknowledges is a distraction. Comey is also expected to discuss conversations he had with Trump before the president fired him in early May, a move critics said was designed to slow down the Russia investigation.

“There’s no doubt that keeping members focused on investigations detracts from our legislative agenda,” said Marc Short, the president’s legislative affairs director.

Short also said the administration is making progress with lawmakers on items ranging from health care to an increase in the debt ceiling.

Trump himself has two sessions with members of Congress on Wednesday.

A mid-afternoon meeting in the Roosevelt Room featured GOP leaders from the House and Senate, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The president entertains other lawmakers at a White House dinner Wednesday night. Guests include a gaggle of Republican senators – Marco Rubio of Florida, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Todd Young of Indiana, and Cory Gardner of Colorado – and a pair of GOP House members, Francis Rooney of Florida and Lee Zeldin of New York.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the president scheduled the dinner "to discuss his recent overseas trip and the foreign policy challenges that he's ready to work with them to tackle."

At this point, Trump's legislative agenda is in many ways a set of ideas.

The Republican-run House eventually passed a health care bill earlier this year, but plans to repeal President Obama's health care law are stalled in the Senate. Many Senate Republicans said the House plan would cut off too many people from insurance, and they want to develop their own plan.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he doubts there will be a comprehensive health care bill this year, because "I just don't think we can get together among ourselves."

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., who said Republicans discussed health care during their policy lunch on Tuesday, told reporters he would like to see action on a health care bill by July 4, "but that’s not some magical date. It may take longer. We may be working on this for a while. I don’t know."

Other plans are also in suspended animation.

While the administration issued a one-page summary of a tax reform plan in April, there is no specific bill pending in Congress. Trump and aides say they want to spend up to $1 trillion to improve roads and bridges, but as yet there is no specific infrastructure plan.

There are other pressing concerns. The administration wants Congress to raise the debt ceiling, allowing the government to pay bills it has incurred, by the time of the August recess.

The administration is also pushing legislation to roll back regulations placed on banks and financial institutions during the Barack Obama administration.

Another distraction for some Republicans on Capitol Hill: presidential tweets, from feuding with the mayor of London over the weekend terrorist attacks to arguing the legal case over a proposed travel ban from certain Muslim countries.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters Monday, "we live in a world today where unfortunately a lot of communication is taking place with 140 characters. Probably it's best to refrain from communicating with 140 characters on topics that are so important."

The controversies surrounding the Trump administration, from the travel ban to the Russia probe, have driven his average approval ratings to below 40%, an unusually low number especially for so early in a presidential term, and certainly not helpful for pushing a legislative agenda.

Rick Tyler, an MSNBC political analyst and former aide to 2016 Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, said "approval ratings and political capital go hand in hand in Washington," and are "the currencies provides the down payment on a legislative agenda."

He added: "Trump's intemperate tweeting has spent down his political capital to the point that he is overdrawn."

Spicer said Wednesday's meetings with lawmakers were devoted to moving bills through Congress.

Republicans campaigned on pledges to repeal and replace Obama's health care law, the White House spokesman said, and he predicted that "they will come together" on a consensus plan. Spicer also said tax reform is complex, and "we need to get this right" while "the American worker and our infrastructure are the president’s priority.”

As for Trump's tweets, Spicer said simply: "The president is the most effective messenger on his agenda."

Trump's political position could be quite a bit different after Comey's testimony Thursday.

Associates of Comey say he the former FBI director has notes of at least one meeting in which Trump asked him to drop on an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who is under scrutiny in both the federal and congressional Russia probes.

Trump said he fired Comey over performance issues. But he also reportedly told Russian officials that Comey is a "nut job" and that dismissing him will help get the Russia issue behind the administration. A week after Comey's firing, the Justice Department appointed ex-FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel in charge of the Russia probe.

With Comey headed to the Hill to give lawmakers his side of the story, Duffy said Trump's legislative program has bigger problems than it simply being ill-designed and without what she called a "legitimate timetable" to get things done.

"When you have something that big floating around out there," she said, referring to Comey and the ongoing Russia probes, "it's easy to get off track."

Contributing: Eliza Collins, Deborah Berry 

© 2017 USA TODAY


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