By Robert Costa and Philip Rucker,
Running for president, Donald Trump promised an immediate revolution — to quickly rebuild America’s cities, overhaul the tax code and deport millions of illegal immigrants.
Just this week, Trump vowed to get started right away building a wall at the border with Mexico (“I don’t want to wait”) and repealing and replacing President Obama’s health-care law (“probably the same day, could be the same hour”).
But ahead of his swearing-in next Friday, the extraordinarily high expectations that Trump has set are running into the logjam known as American democracy. While every new president confronts Washington’s sluggish culture, Trump’s more grandiose and hard-line ideas could face unprecedented challenges — logistical and even constitutional.
Trump imagines a presidency of vision and velocity, but his big-ticket items cannot be done by presidential edict, no matter how loud Trump’s demands might be or assured he is of the popularity of his proposals. They will require consensus on Capitol Hill, emerging from a deliberative process that takes time and the navigation of a labyrinth of constituencies and special interests.
Trump’s team has devised a full legislative calendar with congressional leaders that begins with health care, but already Trump’s ambitions have been slowed somewhat. The Republican majorities in both chambers are moving swiftly to dismantle parts of current law but are still discussing how exactly to replace it. A House vote scheduled Friday on a budget measure, which includes steps to begin repeal of the health law, was preceded by hours of skittishness among both conservative and moderate members about whether Republicans were moving too soon.
Similarly, a spending package to rebuild roads, bridges and airports — a priority for leaders of both political parties — could get bogged down by squabbles over disbursement.
“I don’t think the government was built for speed,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas). The upper chamber’s No. 2 Republican added, “Things always happen more slowly than you want when you’re in the majority and trying to get something done.”
Several Trump advisers acknowledge that congressional procedures dictate that “the wheels of change move slowly,” as one put it. But Kellyanne Conway, the incoming White House counselor, said she was confident that Trump’s agenda will gain momentum.
“The Trump effect on Washington, D.C., is not going to be a fresh coat of paint on a rusty structure,” Conway said. “It’s going to be more of a gut renovation.”
Conway predicted that Trump will bring new energy to a city that has operated on a “glacial pace,” as well as “infuse levels of accountability, metrics and deliverables in a system that seems to lack if not abhor all three of those things.”
Still, for a man who has spent his career as his own boss — calling shots and inking transactions, running his world from the 26th floor of Trump Tower — the art of the deal may soon yield to the art of patience.
“He’s never had a boss in his whole life. It will be a sobering reality to have 535 bosses here — and more to the point, more than 200 million bosses scattered across the country,” Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said. “Patience becomes a virtue as one moves from the business world into the body politic.”
There have been some signs that Trump is starting to internalize his new reality. At his Wednesday news conference, Trump said he would be “the greatest jobs producer that God ever created” — but then conceded that an economic revival depends not only on his hard work, but also on “a little bit of luck.”
The tempo is sure to frustrate Trump. It also risks making him appear ineffective to the masses of voters who bought into his campaign persona as a successful dealmaker and strongman who could blow up Washington and — seemingly overnight — better the lives of everyday Americans.
Trump’s inner circle is grappling with how to manage expectations and are looking for ways to demonstrate quick action and claim early victories. Vice President-elect Mike Pence — who spent 12 years in the House before being elected Indiana’s governor and is intimately familiar with the unpredictable volatility of Congress — has been central in those talks, according to senior transition officials.
There are areas where Trump’s administration sees opportunity to act unilaterally, such as negotiating trade deals or lifting Obama-era regulations. Trump plans a series of executive actions on a wide range of topics in his first days in office, and he told reporters he wants to have daily bill signing ceremonies his first two weeks.
Trump also plans in those weeks to announce his pick for the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the late justice Antonin Scalia. The nomination is expected to consume partisans on both sides and could take several months to reach confirmation.
Another roadblock: public resistance and protests, in particular on immigration, as well as potential resistance among more mainstream Republicans — including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — to Trump’s most controversial proposals, such as a federal deportation force.
“That’s not happening,” Ryan said this week when asked about such a force during a CNN town hall forum.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said, “Trump’s going to come up to the reality of the Republican Senate, which is full of people who have supported immigration reform.”
Trump associates privately say that any blame for delay or inaction on the meatier agenda items could be directed at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House: the Capitol.
Even as they commended him for tapping into the deep dissatisfaction Americans have about the political system — and Congress specifically — some Republican lawmakers said they were concerned Trump has created expectations too great to meet.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Trump could be “giving false hope to people and, frankly, undercutting a system that works.”
“He needs to inform the American people that, ‘Yes, I want to drain the swamp, but there is a process in place that was set long before I got here that I think serves the country well,’” Graham said.
A victim of Trump’s rapid-fire approach to legislating, Democrats say, could be bipartisanship.
“The approach they are taking seems to be explicitly partisan and to try to run as fast as they can,” said Phil Schiliro, who served as White House legislative affairs director during President Obama’s first term. “But I think there will probably be brakes on the system. It’s just the nature of legislation, the way House and Senate legislators work.”
Republican congressional leaders are delicately balancing Trump’s vocal push, and their own desire for rapid change, with the reality confronting them in their chambers. In Trump, they see opportunity to pass a raft of legislation and a willing partner as long as the relationship is continually cultivated.
Conway said that in meetings with Pence last week, Republican lawmakers found Trump’s leadership style “fascinating” and said, “I’m going to see if I can jump on board and keep up.”
Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) shrug off Trump’s missives on Twitter and play up their phone calls and meetings with him. They echo his rhetoric about the pace, even as they quietly mention caveats that could delay passage — anything to keep Trump at ease with an institution he once disdained and is now getting to know. For instance, Ryan has taken care to stay “in complete sync,” as he said Thursday, with the incoming administration.
Ryan invited Trump and Pence to speak at a party retreat in Philadelphia later this month and hosted top Trump advisers this week for an hours-long dinner of Italian pasta and salad in his office to begin discussions on tax reform.
“We agree, we want to make sure we move these things concurrently,” Ryan said when asked about the timing of a health-care replacement. But, he noted, the House will “do this the way Congress is supposed to work.”
For initial policy changes, Republicans are going to use a process called budget reconciliation — where only a simple majority is needed. But not all parts of the health law can be removed in that fashion and many other issues will likely require 60 votes to overcome a filibuster by Democrats. Republicans control the Senate by a 52-48 seat margin.
In pushing to move as fast as possible, Republicans also run the risk of being accused of hypocrisy.
Republicans fiercely criticized Obama for moving too rapidly to pass the 2010 health care law, which was the subject of 14 months of debate as Democrats tried, and failed, to attract GOP support. The Senate held 100 days of hearings on the matter, and the House held 79, according to Schiliro.
“It’s a big, extraordinarily complicated issue,” Schiliro said. “A new law can’t be put in by fiat.”
Nevertheless, rank-and-file Republicans like what they are hearing from Trump.
“He’s trying to exhort a molasses-like institution to act more quickly,” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.). “When you’re the coach of the team, you always emphasize speed. But how fast the players go is how fast the players go. The coach can only do so much.”