WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump laid out an ambitious agenda for the country during a primetime joint address before Congress Tuesday evening, but Republicans are still far from coalescing around specific plans to fulfill those promises.
From the budget to health care and tax reforms, Trump spoke for an hour in mostly broad strokes, offering his vision for the country — a more optimistic one than he’s presented in past speeches. But he gave little in the way of specific proposals or timelines, nor did he address the complicated political calculus and legislative process needed to push through those items.
“A new chapter of American greatness is now beginning,” Trump said in his address. “A new national pride is sweeping across our nation, and a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp.”
Trump did seem to express support for several proposals — including tax credits to buy insurance and a tax reform proposal that would essentially tax imports over exports — that have been pushed by House GOP leadership but face an uphill battle in Congress. Conservatives in the House and Senate have already come out in opposition to an Obamacare replacement plan that includes tax credits, and Senate Republicans have been reluctant to embrace the tax reform proposal.
With a narrow majority in the Senate and an influential conservative voting bloc in the House, some lawmakers had expressed hope that Trump would leverage his position to get Republican lawmakers on the same page on how to move forward with his agenda.
Some members of House Republican leadership said tonight that Trump did exactly that.
“President Trump demonstrated that he and the House are coalescing around a particular replacement plan, including a tax credit to help individuals buy a health plan that fits their needs,” said Speaker Paul Ryan in a statement.
“It’s a clear sign that the president is working directly with us in the House and the Senate on the plans that our leaders have been meeting on with our members,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise told reporters after the speech.
“We’ve laid out a lot of specifics and I think you saw the president embrace and endorse a lot of those key components tonight,” he added.
“Absolutely, I think he did endorse the path that we are taking in the House,” echoed North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx.
But some Republicans were more circumspect in their assessments. New York Rep. Chris Collins, the first member of Congress to endorse Trump, described it as “kind of a 30,000-foot speech.”
“At this point, I would not say that we are far enough along to have a plan to endorse,” Collins said of the GOP’s health care overhaul efforts.
Asked if Trump’s address helps Republicans coalesce and move forward with fulfilling their campaign promises, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake said, “I wouldn’t have expected that,” adding that they weren’t expecting too many specific details in such a speech.
In Trump's call for swift repeal and replacement of Obamacare, which earned him the loudest applause of the evening from the Republican side of the chamber and stone-faced thumbs-downs from Democrats, the president laid out five priorities he wanted to see in the replacement, including ensuring Americans with pre-existing conditions have access to insurance.
Although those are specifics that many Republicans have campaigned on for years, many conservatives in both chambers are having trouble getting on board as the specifics begin to emerge. But Trump’s speech could change that, said Nebraska GOP Sen. Deb Fischer.
“I would think that Republicans have made campaign promises for how many cycles that we will repeal and replace this with insurance that is affordable and insurance that is accessible,” said Fischer, describing Trump’s speech as “very positive” and “inspirational.” “So I certainly think that we’re going to work very hard to make sure Republicans live up to those promises."
But some conservatives — who are opposed to using tax credits to buy insurance — aren’t convinced that Trump supports the House GOP plan that includes that concept, despite him bringing it up during the speech. “Donald Trump has been one of those, I mean, from the get-go he has been focused on doing what he told the voters he was going to do — what we told the voters we were going to do on health care is repeal it and replace it,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan.
“We didn't say we were going to repeal it and keep Medicaid expansion, we didn't say we were going to repeal it and keep tax increases, and we didn't say we're going to repeal it and start a whole new entitlement program. ... We've got real concerns with that, so no, I did not hear that, I heard repeal and replace, which is what we all campaigned on."
North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp — a Democrat from a red state whom Republicans will need for a significant Obamacare replacement — said she actually thought Trump was very specific on his health care plan, but Republicans still have too many issues to figure out. “It’s how we get from A to B,” she said.
Trump will also face a divided Republican Party when it comes to his budget proposal and infrastructure spending plans. In his speech, Trump said he would call for “largest increases in national defense spending in American history,” while eliminating sequester cuts.
The budget, which is expected to increase military spending by $54 billion after deep cuts to other programs, including significant cuts to the State Department, has conservatives worried about increasing spending, and hawkish Republicans are worried about cuts to foreign aid. The proposal also leaves entitlements, which GOP lawmakers have eyed for years, untouched.
Already, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the administration's proposal would "probably not" pass the Senate, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham has called it "dead on arrival" in the upper chamber.
“It's not going to happen,” Graham said earlier in the day. “It would be a disaster.”
Emma Loop contributed reporting.