The Year for Trump and GOP Lawmakers: Rocky Start, Smooth Finish

By Louise Radnofsky and Kristina Peterson Features Dow Jones Newswires

President Donald Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress, who opened their first year in full control of Washington on rocky terms, are closing it with a flush of late legislative achievements: a sweeping tax overhaul, a long-sought repeal of a pillar of the Affordable Care Act and a surprise deal to open up Arctic drilling.

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After the high-profile collapse of a health-care bill to replace Obamacare, the tax legislation itself is a victory that changes the narrative of the first year, some observers said.

"To be viewed as an effective president, you have to be viewed as winning on Capitol Hill, and this ends the year on an up note for him," said Ken Duberstein, former chief of staff for Republican President Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Trump and Congress will add their 11th-hour achievements to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and other conservative judges to federal courts and the rollback of Obama-era regulations through the Congressional Review Act, which until now had been frequently cited by supporters of the administration.

The White House, after court fights, also managed to get a modified version of Mr. Trump's travel ban in place, and the president has been able to implement a more vigorous process for vetting people before they enter the U.S. He has withdrawn the U.S. from an Asia trade deal, and is in the process of renegotiating a similar pact with Mexico and Canada, fulfilling two other campaign promises.

Republicans, who had grown anxious that they wouldn't have enough to show voters after their first year in control of the White House and Congress, cheered the tax bill's passage as evidence of a new relationship.

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"It was a lot of fun," said Mr. Trump, hosting GOP lawmakers at the White House Wednesday. "This is just the beginning," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah).

Skeptics counter that it will be more difficult to carry that momentum into next year. On Thursday, the House and Senate passed a stopgap spending bill that keeps the government funded through Jan. 19 and punts bigger debates over immigration and spending into January. Next year's agenda is also expected to include an infrastructure bill and an attempt to overhaul the welfare system.

Action on most of those issues will require Democratic votes in order to pass and will occur in the historically difficult second year of a presidency.

"The irony is during the first term, the president's opportunity to get things done is earlier on, but by the time the president really figures out the legislative game and gets good at doing this, the window has passed by," said Lori Cox Han, a political science professor at Chapman University.

The Republicans' challenges will also be complicated by the midterm elections in which they will be fighting to hold their majorities in the House and Senate. Strong Democratic turnout in the November Virginia governor's race and this month's special Senate election in Alabama, both of which the Republicans lost, is viewed by both parties as a major threat to the GOP.

"I see a historical trend cutting against us -- the average loss of seats is 32 for a president's first midterm and that's just the average, " House Speaker Paul Ryan said in an interview this week. "So what I keep telling people is we have the wind at our face, historically speaking."

Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to retake control of the House, and just two to recapture the Senate.

The president and many members of his party began the year as strangers. Few Republican lawmakers endorsed Mr. Trump, and some explicitly distanced themselves from him during the campaign.

Mr. Trump had a particularly tense start with Mr. Ryan, who, after the release last year of a video in which Mr. Trump talked about groping women, said he would no longer campaign with Mr. Trump, then the GOP presidential nominee. Mr. Ryan also criticized many of Mr. Trump's most controversial statements and decisions, including the initial travel ban.

Over the course of the year, Mr. Trump learned to let legislators figure out how best to achieve shared goals "and don't microanalyze and micromanage on the way there," Mr. Ryan said.

Senators said they felt that Mr. Trump had learned from his mistakes, and noted that he had forged working relationships with two of his presidential primary opponents, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky, as well as helping to win over Sen. Susan Collins of Maine to supporting the tax bill.

"I think there was a feeling at first that he could browbeat Congress in a way that presidents can't browbeat Congress," said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R., La.), citing the president's criticism of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and his open consideration of replacing Jeff Sessions, the former Alabama senator, as attorney general. "That is different from the business world...and I think the president's adapted very quickly."

GOP lawmakers also said they have gotten better at not reading too much into Mr. Trump's tweets -- which they still view as unhelpful. "It's almost like that star quarterback who always makes these gestures that are just inappropriate," said Rep. Dennis Ross (R., Fla.), a senior member of the House whip team. "I still love the team and I like to win -- I just don't always condone the actions of my quarterback."

Inside the White House, officials believe that in passing the tax bill they created work habits they can now successfully apply to future policy battles.

But the president's outreach to Democrats hasn't yielded results on legislation, and that relationship will be far more important in the coming year.

After the collapse of a measure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Mr. Trump sought solace in the arms of Democrats and ultimately struck a high-profile agreement with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) on a three-month spending and storm-aid bill in September that seemed to suggest he was willing to loosen ties with his own party.

Mr. Trump wooed red-state Democrats on his tax bill too, over dinners and rides on Air Force One. But ultimately, he failed to secure support from any of them.

The White House rued the loss, saying after the tax vote that officials had engaged on 70 occasions with Democrats and made "a sincere effort...I'm sorry we couldn't get Democrats to join us in this effort," one senior White House official said.

Democrats countered they were gettable. "If they'd made a couple more tweaks on the tax bill, I could have voted for it," said Rep. Collin Peterson, a conservative Democrat from a district in Minnesota that Mr. Trump won with more than 61% of the vote.

The week's victory notwithstanding, some Republicans in competitive races next year have signaled they are likely to put more distance between themselves and the president, eyeing the energy of Democratic voters in the fall's elections in Virginia and Alabama. Some, for example, aren't inviting the president to campaign with them.

"I'm comfortable running that campaign on my own," said Rep. Ryan Costello, a Republican representing a swing district in suburban Philadelphia.

--Peter Nicholas contributed to this article.

Write to Louise Radnofsky at louise.radnofsky@wsj.com and Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 22, 2017 07:14 ET (12:14 GMT)