President Trump’s pledge in his State of the Union address Tuesday night to “extend an open hand” to both parties in pursuit of an ambitious policy agenda rammed quickly Wednesday into the reality of a largely gridlocked Congress — and a deeply polarized Washington.
Trump’s call for a massive infrastructure bill to fund new bridges, roads and other projects nationwide was shelved, at least for now, as lawmakers prepared to return to disputes over spending that have gripped the Capitol for weeks.
Democrats, most of whom sat stone-faced in the House chamber during Trump’s address, blasted the president for not calling out Russia for its interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and predicted that his scripted appeal for unity could not make up for a year’s worth of divisive behavior.
And some conservatives expressed alarm that Trump offered to put more than 1 million young undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship, as Democrats vowed to oppose Trump’s push to curb some forms of legal immigration.
“I enjoyed the fact that the president was measured and scripted, but everything we’re talking about here stays the same,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (Pa.), a centrist Republican who is retiring after this year.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a former Trump campaign rival who has become a fierce ally, emerged from the speech and immediately noted the partisan breach and the disconnect between Trump’s words and the dynamics on Capitol Hill.
“I have never seen the Senate more divided than it is right now,” Cruz said.
Noted Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.): “The president talked about unity in his speech at the beginning, but by the end all he did was drive the wedges further in.”
The fleeting nature of Trump’s first State of the Union address revealed just how difficult it will be for his administration to accomplish much of anything this year in Congress.
Party leaders remain preoccupied by the approaching Feb. 8 deadline for government funding. Democrats, other than those running for reelection in conservative states, are wary of Trump’s outreach and distrustful of a president many have said is morally unfit for the office. And many Republicans, frustrated that Trump’s unpopularity is clouding out the potential political benefits of a healthy economy, are starting to hunker down ahead of the midterm election season.
Even Trump’s allies acknowledged that there is little the president can do to bring the warring factions together.
“The fights and the disagreements have nothing to do with who is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “There are fundamental gaps in the Senate and the House that are keeping us from consensus.”
Those gaps are most prevalent in the ongoing budget battle. A government shutdown in late January left congressional leaders at odds and without a long-term spending deal. Democrats continue to insist that any agreement made in February must include protections for “dreamers,” the roughly 1.8 million immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children by their parents.
Republicans have resisted those calls to link a vote on the next spending bill to immigration legislation — and they are split on specifics.
The divisions on the issue among House Republicans were apparent in the aftermath of Trump’s speech, in which he said many of the young undocumented immigrants would be able to gain citizenship over a 12-year period. That legalization would be granted in return for increased spending on border security, including Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, an end to the visa lottery and limits on family reunification policies.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an advocate for a more restrictive immigration system, said Trump’s remarks on letting undocumented immigrants gain citizenship were not well-received by many of his colleagues.
“You notice the Republicans were pretty flat on that?” King asked.
Trump terminated the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last fall and set March 5 as the deadline when the bulk of their work permits would begin to expire. A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order reinstating the program, although legal analysts said the decision probably would be overturned if challenged.
Moderate Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are urging their colleagues to let them work out an agreement with moderate Senate Democrats.
On spending, Republicans face similar fractures. GOP hawks are clamoring for a boost in military spending, but the party’s hard-liners are unhappy with proposals that would increase the federal deficit.
All of these debates will soon force House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to put together a political Rubik’s cube that can pass both chambers by Feb. 8, or else risk another shutdown.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told The Washington Post in a recent interview that it would be best if Trump stays out of the fragile talks on immigration.
“If he disappears, we still, I think, have a very good chance to pass things, as long as he doesn’t mess it all up, which could very well happen,” Schumer said.
Congressional Republicans will head Wednesday to the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia for a party retreat, where Trump is scheduled to visit, and spending and immigration issues are expected to be discussed.
Trump’s emphasis Tuesday on improving infrastructure, pledging to build “gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways all across our land,” drew some bipartisan praise.
Yet his plans for funding the infrastructure — with legislation that would “leverage” state, local and private money to generate $1.5 trillion — prompted questions and scrutiny.
“One-point-five trillion [dollars] matched by apparently $1.5 trillion at the state — where does that come from, how does that work? A lot of details that need to be worked out,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.), the chairman of the Senate Republican campaign arm.
Although infrastructure has been viewed as a potentially unifying issue for the two parties, Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on how to proceed.
Most Republicans, as they mingled at the Capitol on Tuesday after Trump’s speech, talked up infrastructure as public-private partnerships driven by tax credits for corporations. Democrats, however, talked about infrastructure as federal spending that should be driven by Congress, not by companies.
“It’s totally different,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat, said of the Democrats’ understanding of infrastructure. Referring to Trump’s comments on funding, Durbin added: “To me, it’s a throwaway line, it avoids coming up with serious funding.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is running for reelection in a state Trump won, added, “There are a bunch of us that want to work on infrastructure, but it can’t be overly reliant on tolls from blue areas of the country and leave red areas of the country behind.”
Republicans in swing districts said they are looking for “incremental” action in the coming months, if anything. Facing a potential Democratic wave in the midterm elections, according to most nonpartisan analysts, they are focused on selling the Republican tax law that was passed last year.
“Folks in my district want to learn about why the tax bill is good,” said Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), who represents the Philadelphia suburbs. “I’m hearing as much about the president’s style and tone as I am about his policies. They’re allergic to that and it makes a member like me have to speak out.”
Factoring into the static atmosphere are the retirements of Republicans who in the past have shepherded legislative deals. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (N.J.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, announced Monday that he will not seek reelection, making him the eighth House committee chairman to do so in recent months.
The Democratic Party’s intense aversion to Trump, along with Republican infighting, leaves the president with few options for grand bargains.
Durbin said he has not spoken to Trump since early January, when Trump erupted and used vulgar language about immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries during an Oval Office meeting.
“I’ve spoken to the president five times in my life,” Durbin said tersely. “So it isn’t as if we are going to play golf or chat.”