On Tuesday night, President Trump will address a bicameral session of Congress that is, at turns, a) still not quite sure what to make of him (see: Republican leaders tiptoeing around his many controversies), b) skeptical of him (see: John McCain) and c) downright hostile to him (see: virtually all Democrats).
A lot is on the line for Trump, who will need to work with both chambers of Congress if he wants to get anything significant done these next four years. Tuesday is Trump’s first real opportunity to communicate clearly to Congress what exactly it is he wants while smoothing over some of the jagged edges of his first month in office.
“For everybody to walk out of the hall afterwards and say, ‘Well, he’s pretty clear about what he wants to accomplish,’ that’d be a success,” said GOP strategist Josh Holmes
Here are six ways to gauge whether key factions in Congress think Trump’s address Tuesday night is a success.
1. If Trump says something like: “We need to rebuild our military at all costs.”
Watch reaction from: Conservative budget hawks, such as members of the House Freedom Caucus — including GOP Reps. Mark Meadows (N.C.), Justin Amash (Mich.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio). Yes, flexing military strength is a traditional Republican value. But so is restraining federal spending, and it’s an open question whether conservative Republicans will give Trump a blank check for the military.
“There’s more to the government than defense,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) told The Washington Post recently.
On the other side of this debate, watch for military hawks such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who want more money for defense than what Trump is proposing.
2. If Trump says something like: “I want to spend $1 trillion to rebuild our country’s bridges and roads and public transit.”
Watch reaction from: Democratic lawmakers. This is one of Trump’s priorities that could easily flip the script in Washington and have more Democratic support than Republican. In fact, Senate Democrats announced their own version of a $1 trillion infrastructure plan in late January hoping that Trump would latch onto it.
That was then. Now, Democrats have spent a month throwing virtually every roadblock they can at Trump’s presidency, driven by a grass-roots left that wants its lawmakers to resist Trump. In that context, Democrats must ask themselves: If Trump proposes something they want to do, how much do they double back to work with him? Will a proposal to spend on infrastructure get more than polite clapping from Democrats?
3. If Trump says something like: “I want to help working parents by making child care more affordable.”
Watch reaction from: Democrats. Again, here is an issue where Trump could sound more like a Democratic president than a Republican one. Politico reported in January that his aides asked top House Republicans to include child care write-offs in a tax bill.
But see above. After a tumultuous first month between Trump and Democrats in Congress — it’s been nothing short of all-out procedural war to get his Cabinet nominees through — how much political room do congressional Democrats feel they have to work with Trump?
4. If Trump says something like: “I want to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border now, and we’ll get Mexico to pay for it later.”
Watch reaction from: House Republicans with districts on the border. Lawmakers who represent a sizable chunk of the U.S.-Mexico border have been skeptical or downright hostile to the idea that Trump’s wall will solve or even significantly alleviate illegal immigration.
“Building a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border,” said Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), whose district spans 40 percent of the southern border.
“When it comes to barriers, they are important where appropriate, but only part of the equation,” said Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.).
As for how to pay for it, watch conservative fiscal hawks, who will probably not be keen to front upwards of $25 billion.
5. If Trump says something like: “Millions of Americans rely on federal benefits like Medicare and Social Security. I don’t want to touch these programs.”
Watch reaction from: House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). For years now, Ryan has been very, very clear that he thinks these programs are draining federal resources, even going so far as to declare that they’re “going broke.” How much is Ryan willing to meet Trump on preserving these programs, not just for the people on them now but for future generations?
6. If Trump says something like: “I want a full repeal of Obamacare.”
Watch reaction from: Rank-and-file House Republicans. In a closed-door strategy session in late January, some Republicans were very worried that getting rid of the 2010 health-care reform law would pull the rug out from under 20 million people. “We’d better be sure that we’re prepared to live with the market we’ve created,” warned Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) in that session.
Making the issue even more precarious is the fact that Republicans have yet to coalesce around a replacement plan; some Freedom Caucus members are adamantly opposed to a proposal to offer tax credits, for example. That’s prompting congressional Democrats to boast that they don’t think the health-care law will actually be repealed.