White House Turmoil Puts GOP Legislative Agenda at Risk

President Donald Trump's string of recent controversies risks draining his valuable political capital as congressional Republicans prepare to overhaul the health-care system and tax code, exasperating GOP allies and complicating any future work with Democrats.

"We could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus on our agenda," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who rarely rebukes Mr. Trump, said Tuesday.

"I am worried, concerned, that continual political drama will drain the energy away from real accomplishments," said Mac Thornberry (R., Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

The latest incident, involving Mr. Trump disclosing sensitive information to Russian officials, further dimmed prospects of any significant cooperation with Democrats, needed for most legislative efforts beyond health care and taxes. And Republicans said it was hard to concentrate on crafting legislation they plan to pass with only GOP votes amid the continuing White House turmoil.

"When you're not sure what's going to happen from the morning to the evening, it definitely takes your eye off the ball," said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R., W.Va.) "We're trying to stay focused on what we need to do, which is health care."

The White House has defended Mr. Trump's sharing of information with the Russian officials but has declined to comment on whether the information was classified. National security adviser H.R. McMaster said Tuesday that the intelligence shared was "wholly appropriate."

The most recent fracas is unlikely to immediately jam the congressional calendar, which was in a quiet period of low-profile legislating. The Senate is slogging through confirmation of lower-level presidential nominees, while Republicans are working behind the scenes to craft big-ticket bills on health care and a rewrite of the tax code.

Senate Republicans are meeting three times a week to construct their own bill to roll back and replace much of the Affordable Care Act, and are also working on tax legislation. House Republicans are turning to taxes as well, having passed their own health bill earlier this month, thanks in part to the White House pressuring wavering lawmakers to get on board.

As those fights heat up later this year, Mr. Trump may find his own political capital diminished when he seeks to get his own priorities included. He has released an outline of his own tax proposal and made clear that any health-care legislation can't violate his populist pledges to provide cheaper and better coverage than the ACA.

"Whenever there's drama going on over there, it's tougher for the agenda here," said Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) said of the White House's recent actions. "But I suppose it's going to continue, so we'll have to get used to it."

The president's approval rating has remained steadily below 40%, which could make centrist Republicans and red-state Democrats less willing to align with him. Some 39% of poll respondents said they approved of Mr. Trump's overall job performance in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, while 54% disapproved, almost identical to the results of the survey in April.

"If the president is struggling to expand beyond his base, it makes legislating harder," said Stewart Verdery, the founder of lobbying and public-affairs firm Monument Policy Group and a former Senate Republican aide. "The energy level on the left is so hot, it just means that nobody wants to compromise on anything."

Democrats have relatively little leverage on Capitol Hill, where they are in the minority in both chambers. The next major piece of must-pass legislation is the spending bill that will need to clear Congress before Oct. 1, when the government's current funding expires and a two-year budget deal ends. Spending bills require 60 votes in the Senate, where Republicans hold 52 seats, so Democrats will have some sway there. Democratic votes also will be needed to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as for legislation dealing with the Food and Drug Administration user fees.

Republicans are planning to send Mr. Trump their health-care and tax bills through a process tied to the budget that enables them to pass with a simple majority in both chambers, relegating Democrats to the sidelines. But if the president hopes to clear an infrastructure package or other bipartisan bills, Democrats said his prospects of winning them over are slipping.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) said the White House hadn't produced anything on which Democrats could work with them.

"We have no jobs bill, we have no infrastructure bill, no tax bill," Mr. Hoyer said. "We have no plan for Syria. We have no plan for North Korea... I don't think I've ever seen an administration that was so lacking in substantive proposals this late in the beginning of their term."

Because legislating gets harder during a campaign year, GOP leaders have said they hope to pass both health-care and tax legislation by year's end, before the 2018 campaign cycle heats up. Both chambers will be out of session for the week following Memorial Day, then will return for four weeks before the July 4 recess. Although GOP leaders haven't set official deadlines, some Senate Republicans hope to pass a health-care bill before the July 4 break, knowing it will take more time to negotiate a compromise that can pass the House.

It is possible that the White House headlines could help Republicans by distracting the public from back-room negotiations over health care and a tax code rewrite. Attention to these issues is likely to rise next week when Mr. Trump unveils his fiscal year 2018 budget and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office releases an updated estimate of the House health-care bill's cost and coverage impact.

"Republicans may be able to fly beneath the radar if the Trump controversies persist," said Greg Valliere, chief global strategist at Horizon Investments, an investment management firm. "And if they do, Republicans may be motivated to get something like tax reform done because they need to show voters in 2018 some accomplishments, not just dysfunction."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 16, 2017 19:08 ET (23:08 GMT)