WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to the presidency hasn’t helped him notch significant victories on Capitol Hill over his first five months in office. The nuts and bolts of legislation and the maddening, unpredictable ways and rhythms of Congress can seem foreign to him. Most of his top advisers have little Washington experience — and it’s showed.
Now, facing an enormous challenge in the Senate on health care, Trump and his team are opting for a hands-off approach on legislation to dismantle the “Obamacare” law, instead putting their faith in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to deliver a legacy-defining victory.
“Sen. McConnell has said that he wants a vote next week and that’s up to him to run the chamber the way he sees fit. But the president is very supportive of the bill,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Friday.
The strategy follows Trump’s seat-of-the-pants approach on health care in the House that almost unraveled and exposed painful rifts among Republicans. Trump’s team also failed to score major wins in last month’s wrap-up spending bill, as lawmakers blocked funding for his border wall, leading the president to lash out on Twitter and ponder vetoing the measure.
After a shaky start, the White House hopes the Senate debate will allow Trump to turn the page on health care and get a fresh start on rewriting the tax code, a plan to rebuild roads and bridges, and his promise to strengthen the military — none of which will prove easy to accomplish.
On taxes, a working group of four top lawmakers is meeting weekly in hopes of coming up with a unified GOP tax plan for a vote this fall.
While health care is still unfinished, Trump took pride on Friday in signing a bill to make it easier to fire workers at the much-criticized Department of Veterans Affairs. He took to Twitter to boast of passing 38 bills thus far.
“I’ve done in five months what other people haven’t done in years,” Trump said in an interview that aired Friday on Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends.”
House GOP leaders say Trump was a big asset in getting the health care bill passed, despite a fight with the hard-right Freedom Caucus that stalled the measure.
“He’s more engaging, which means he has more personal relationships,” said No. 2 House Republican Kevin McCarthy of California. “He will tell you from the health care experience that he’s talked to almost every single member. If he sees somebody on TV and he thought they did something good, he’ll pick up the phone and just call them directly.”
But the Senate is even more complicated and Trump’s lack of interest in the nitty-gritty details of legislation is a liability.
When Trump suggested on Twitter in late May that Republicans should change the Senate rules to a simple majority vote to speed up the process, McConnell told the president to leave Senate business to him, according to three people familiar with the conversation. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private calls.
During a White House meeting last week with 13 Republican senators, Trump said the House version was “mean” and urged the senators to make it more generous. That message was at odds with Trump’s Rose Garden celebration after the bill cleared the House, when he told lawmakers it was a “great plan.”
But Trump didn’t articulate what improvements he wanted to see in the Senate bill, even as the comment ruffled feathers in the House.
Shortly after the Senate bill was released on Thursday, the challenges that lie ahead in the Senate came into view. If three of the Senate Republicans’ 52 members oppose the bill, it will fail.
Four conservative Senate Republicans — including onetime Trump presidential rivals Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas — said they could not support the plan because it looked too much like Obamacare.
Others, like Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada, Shelly Moore Capito of West Virginia and Rob Portman of Ohio, have pointed to concerns about the proposal’s cuts to Medicaid.
“It’s going to be very difficult to get me to a ‘yes,'” Heller said Friday.
Trump helped House leaders corral votes, but his ability to move more difficult-to-influence senators is untested. Several of them felt his lash during last year’s campaign or, like Portman and Susan Collins of Maine, have kept their distance from Trump.
The health care bill could underscore the perils of the president’s poor job approval ratings, which have hovered around 40 percent this year. Some of the GOP senators he’ll need to persuade have built their own separate political identities in their home states and may be less inclined to embrace Trump.
Behind the scenes, several members of Trump’s team have been active in discussions with Senate leaders, including chief of staff Reince Priebus; legislative director Marc Short; domestic policy chief Andrew Bremberg, who’s a former aide to McConnell; Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price; and Seema Verma, who oversees Medicare and Medicaid.
Vice President Mike Pence has made weekly trips to Capitol Hill to meet with senators about the health care bill and said he and the president are “determined before this summer is out” to keep their promise to break up Obamacare.
Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said the White House needed to “get this health care thing done one way or the other” so it could move forward. But he put the fate of the bill in McConnell’s hands.
“It may be a squeaker, but I have a lot of confidence in the ability and the maneuverability of McConnell,” Lott said.