WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, West Virginia — Congressional Republicans in sweater vests and fleece gathered at a West Virginia resort Thursday in search of a winning election-year agenda, facing the notion that the best they have to offer in 2018 may be a recitation of the tax cuts approved in 2017 — and well aware of the looming threat of another government shutdown.
The legislators had forums on topics such as infrastructure, national security and the economy — but noticeably not on immigration, the major issue that bedevils them.
They got a pep talk from President Donald Trump reliving passage of the tax bill and highlighting other GOP victories from his first year in office. But the president offered no clear strategy for resolving the immigration-and-spending standoff that produced a three-day government shutdown in January and threatens a second shutdown next week. And he offered no new policy details on infrastructure, prescription drug prices or other items he’s mentioned as ripe for attention in 2018.
As for an immigration strategy, Trump said: “We have to get help from the other side, or we have to elect many more Republicans.” He then proceeded to take jabs at Democrats just days after calling for bipartisan unity in his State of the Union address.
Trump took a similar tack at a second GOP event Thursday night in Washington.
“You know the Democrats are AWOL. They’re missing in action,” Trump said at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting at his Washington hotel. “We’re saying, ‘Where are they?’ We have a proposal. We never hear from them.”
Republicans appear headed into the year with the idea that 2017 was when they got bigger items done and that 2018 will be a time to deal with necessary business, including spending and immigration. Infrastructure would likely require a sustained push from the president. The message for the midterms is expected to be the economy and tax cuts.
“Tax reform is working,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, citing investments by UPS and employee bonuses by Lowe’s as the latest evidence. Take-home pay is going up, while consumer confidence is at a 17-year high and unemployment at a 17-year low, Ryan said.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation Committee, gamely told reporters that Trump’s history as a developer makes him the ideal person to push a major infrastructure plan.
“He understands how to bring projects in on time and under budget,” said Shuster, who added that he brought up the “elephant” in a room full of Republicans: raising the gas tax to pay for more highways.
Shuster acknowledged that a tax increase was a tough sell in an election year but said public-private partnerships such as those used by Connecticut at highway rest stops could be an alternative.
Trump mentioned a “right to try” bill to speed approval of life-saving drugs, but the plan received little or no buzz among lawmakers.
Besides tax cuts and the strong economy, Republicans said they have a not-so-secret weapon: House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who said the GOP tax bill would provide mere “crumbs” for many taxpayers.
Trump compared the remark to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 description of his supporters as “deplorables,” and Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, chairman of the House campaign arm, said Pelosi’s words will be repeated in TV ads around the country.
“Her ‘crumbs’ comment is something I think we can use pretty effectively,” Stivers said.
Amid the optimism were nagging questions about whether lawmakers will enact immigration changes or deadlock over Trump’s calls for a wall along the Mexican border and a path to citizenship for young immigrants here illegally. Meanwhile Congress faces a Feb. 8 deadline to avert another government shutdown.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised that wouldn’t happen, saying, “There’s no education in the second kick of a mule.”
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said he doubted there will be a unified Republican approach on immigration, noting that House and Senate Republicans have vastly different visions on the bill. And while there was no formal immigration session on the agenda, Lankford and other lawmakers said the issue has come up frequently in informal talks among lawmakers.
“There’s a lot of dialogue happening in the hallway” on immigration, Lankford said, adding that he hopes the GOP will coalesce around a White House framework Trump outlined last week and reiterated during his State of the Union address.
The White House has proposed creating a path to citizenship for up to 1.8 million young people living in the county illegally in exchange for billions for a border wall and dramatic cuts to legal immigration. Democrats have blasted the plan and called it dead on arrival.
Trump claimed that if Democrats don’t agree to the immigration framework he’s presented, it will be because they want the issue to animate voters in the 2018 midterm elections.
“It’s now an election issue that will go to our benefit, not their benefit,” he said.
In Washington later, he said: “I don’t think they want to solve the DACA problem. I think they want to talk about it. I think they want to obstruct. … That’s all they do is resist.”
Days after calling on both parties to come together, Trump criticized Democrats for the less than enthusiastic reception they gave his 80-minute State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill.
“They sat there stone cold, no smile, no applause,” Trump said, suggesting that “perhaps they’d rather see us not do well than see our country do great.”