Politics

Reality Check: Trump’s State of the Union Vision Blurred By Congress

‘The state of our union is strong because our people are strong,’ president says

President Donald Trump applauds during his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, as Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker Paul D. Ryan look on. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

In his first State of the Union address, President Donald Trump described an ambitious vision of Democratic members joining him and Republicans in overhauling immigration policy and rebuilding the country’s aging infrastructure. Reality, however, shows how difficult it all will be.

Trump, after a year of harsh comments and tweets about Democrats, struck a new tone Tuesday — at least for one night — by describing a country in which “all of us” should come “together, as one team, one people, and one American family.” The president who has yet to pass major legislation with a single Democratic vote said he wants “both parties to come together.”

“So tonight I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties, Democrats and Republicans, to protect our citizens, of every background, color, and creed,” he said.

As expected, the president boasted about the performance of the economy. He described the GOP-crafted tax law as already providing an economic boost.

“Our massive tax cuts provide tremendous relief for the middle class and small businesses,” Trump said. 

Watch: The State of the Union in 3 Minutes

He mostly stuck to his prepared remarks, smiling and gesturing at individual lawmakers. He drew bipartisan applause when he honored House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was shot last year at the congressional Republicans’ baseball practice, as “the legend from Louisiana.” And he delivered a traditional-sounding line about the state of the country.

“Let us begin tonight by recognizing that the state of our union is strong because our people are strong,” Trump said.

From there, the address showed that Trump and his team are eager for more legislative victories and cognizant of the need to attract at least a handful of Democratic votes on issues such as immigration and infrastructure. Whether there is enough to entice them eventually is unclear at this point. 

[Highlights From Trump’s State of the Union]

Something that is clear: It will be difficult to turn bipartisan legislative victories into reality. Here are three examples.

Immigration

Stephen Miller, the president’s top domestic policy adviser and a immigration hard-liner, was chief speechwriter for the address. His fingerprints were most noticeable when Trump pivoted to immigration, using the hard-line language he and Miller favor.

“For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives,” Trump said, departing from what his aides promised would be an “unifying” message.

Trump touted the immigration plan aides unveiled last week, which would double the number of people covered by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, limit migration to nuclear-family members, fund his Southern border wall, and end the diversity visa lottery program.

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“The United States is a compassionate nation. We are proud that we do more than any other country to help the needy,” Trump said, adding that his top priority is to protect American citizens, a line met with silence by Democrats in the chamber.

But Democrats have formally divorced talks about a government spending deal from the DACA debate, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said Tuesday. They also met his Tuesday remarks on the subject with groans and hisses.

The former action might make talks about keeping the government open beyond next Thursday easier, but there is evidence that the president’s State of the Union rhetoric far outpaces the state of talks on Capitol Hill about an immigration overhaul bill that would protect the approximately 700,000 immigrants cover under DACA — and perhaps expand that number.

“Progress is being made, let’s hope they can come up with a compromise that can get 60 votes in the Senate,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday of bipartisan immigration talks.

When White House aides last week rolled out the immigration proposals Trump discussed in his address, they were almost immediately rejected by many Democrats and pro-immigrant groups.

One influential group called Trump’s plan a “white supremacist ransom note.”

But Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn called it a “very generous proposal,” saying Tuesday that Democrats have yet to counter-offer. Until they do, Trump’s lofty rhetoric will remain just that — especially after some Democrats in the chamber audibly accused him of “lies” when he said immigrants are allowed “limitless sponsorships.”

Infrastructure

Trump asked lawmakers to send him a bill that “generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need,” adding that every federal dollar should be “leveraged by partnering with state and local governments” and, where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment” to “permanently fix” what he dubbed the “infrastructure deficit.”

But federal budget experts of all political stripes agree that so-called offsets — items in the federal budget that are cut to make room for new spending in a net neutral manner — might be the toughest thing in Washington to negotiate. For every one member in favor of slashing a program’s budget — or terminating it — there typically are several whose districts or states have a big stake in it.

That means even “paying for” the $200 billion in federal infrastructure dollars that Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget will reportedly request with other cuts — as many conservative Republicans, especially in the House, are already demanding — could cause the president to settle for less. Then there’s the herculean task of getting state, local and private sources to part with the other $1.3 trillion.

Top Democrats such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have already expressed serious doubts about the administration’s chances of raising the full amount among from non-federal sources.

[Senate Dems Ask Why Trump Let Russian Spy Chief Into United States]

“It’s a really bad deal for state and local government, instead of doing ‘Build America Bonds,’” the California Democrat said Monday, referring to a program of taxable municipal bonds that offered tax credits and subsidies as part of the 2009 economic recovery law. On Tuesday night, Democratic members reacted with applause that was tepid, at best, for something that Trump once called the “easy” legislative initiative. 

Trade

The president’s skepticism about trade pacts with more than one country and his sharp criticism even of allies with which the United States has long traded has raised eyebrows at home and abroad. He mostly repeated himself on Tuesday night, calling for “fair” deals and negotiating new ones.

“The era of economic surrender is over,” he said. “From now on, we expect trading relationships to be fair and to be reciprocal. … We will protect American workers and American intellectual property, through strong enforcement of our trade rules.”

Forget Democrats, Trump’s “America first” approach to global trade faces stiff opposition from congressional Republicans.

His party typically is one of free trade. Consider that on Tuesday, Republican members continued expressing concerns over the administration’s trade actions.

Thirty-six members, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, wrote to the president urging him to keep the United States a part of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump’s team is trying to renegotiate with Canada and Mexico.

And last week, Senate Republicans used a healthy chunk of time during their weekly policy lunch to raise concerns about Trump’s approach. Afterward, Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota said members are “trying to push as much as we can the idea that withdrawing from NAFTA would be really bad for the economy.”

Joe Williams and Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.