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Analysis: Trump has trouble figuring out Congress

Erica Werner
Associated Press

Washington — President Donald Trump’s first budget proposal, snubbed by some Republican allies, is just the latest example of an administration that seems at times clueless or indifferent toward Congress.

Since becoming president, Trump has at times wrapped congressional Republicans in a clumsy embrace that many have welcomed, wooing House members with Oval Office facetime or trips on Air Force One. At other times he’s misread, ignored or disregarded both parties on Capitol Hill.

Early on, the administration’s botched rollout of Trump’s immigrant travel ban caught Republicans off-guard and scrambling to get basic information for their constituents. Two weeks ago, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey with little to no heads-up to GOP leaders, some of whom were left struggling to explain, much less defend, the president’s decision.

Now, with Trump’s approval rating hovering around 40 percent and a special counsel investigating his campaign’s ties with Russia, some Republicans are concerned his stumbles could even cost them their House majority. As a result, Trump is receiving strikingly little deference on Capitol Hill for a president so early in his administration.

“Trump does not have much invested in Congress and Congress doesn’t have much invested in him,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist and former adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “Congressional Republicans and Trump ran separate campaigns last fall and credit their elections to different coalitions, and at the end of the day while they’re Republicans they’re only united by their agenda.”

And thus far that agenda — starting with repealing Democrat Barack Obama’s health care law and a tax code overhaul — remains undone as the two sides struggle to work together and bridge their own divides.

Some Republicans said that that they had heard nothing from the administration beforehand prior to the release of a budget notable for harsh cuts to domestic safety-net programs from Medicaid to food stamps to crop insurance that congressional Republicans were never going to accept.

“You would hope that they would want to ask the folks who know the most about it,” said Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, adding he and his staff were not consulted ahead of the proposal of large crop insurance cuts which he cannot support.

“It has to be a collaborative process and I hope that the administration will take our views into consideration moving forward,” said Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., when asked whether the administration had taken Congress’ views into account. “Obviously we are the branch of government that has to pass any piece of legislation.”

White House allies dispute such complaints, but at times Trump himself hardly seems to have his finger on the pulse of lawmakers of either party.

The president expressed amazement that congressional Democrats weren’t cheering the Comey firing, since they too had been critical of Comey for his handling of the investigation into Democrat Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. And then the White House floated the name of former Sen. Joe Lieberman to replace Comey, apparently in the mistaken belief that Democrats would embrace the onetime Democratic senator who’d subsequently betrayed the party, in the view of many, by endorsing Republican John McCain over Obama for president in 2008.

And even while decrying the large cuts in the president’s budget, which longtime GOP Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky deemed “draconian,” GOP lawmakers were also expressing frustration that Trump was leaving Social Security and Medicare largely intact — another area where Trump’s goals stand in conflict with those of congressional Republicans.

“I think they’re trying to do their best to come up with a budget that gets where we need to go but doesn’t take on in a significant way entitlement programs, which is where most of us know the money is,” said Sen. John Thune of North Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican. “And so that part is frustrating.”

Leading the defense of the president’s plan is Mick Mulvaney, the director of Office of Management and Budget and a former congressman elected in the 2010 tea party wave. Trump tapped several current and former members of Congress for his administration, starting with Vice President Mike Pence, but few have any significant, long-term experience working on major legislation.

The same is true of White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a former head of the Republican National Committee.

Congressional Republicans fear that a lack of accomplishments will cost them in next year’s midterms. They haven’t forgotten that even before taking office, Trump undercut GOP efforts in one Senate race.

Trump managed to thwart one of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s goals by appointing Montana GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke to run the Interior Department. The president ignored pleas from McConnell allies who wanted Zinke to run for Senate against one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats, Jon Tester of Montana.