Trump's stalled presidency: Legislative agenda sputters amid Russia cloud

Story highlights

  • Trump is meeting with members of Congress Tuesday
  • He hopes to spur his agenda

Washington (CNN)Donald Trump's legislative agenda is stalled on Capitol Hill, collateral damage to a mix of swirling controversies -- including the firing of FBI Director James Comey and Russia investigation -- and the President's off-the-cuff style that has Republican lawmakers constantly responding to the crisis du jour.

After Trump's unexpected 2016 win, Republicans were bullish at the start his presidency about winning wholesale changes to health care, remaking the tax system and rebuilding America's infrastructure.
    Nearly five months in, though, little of that has happened. And Trump's top aides are now acknowledging the problem.
    "There's no doubt that keeping members focused on investigations detracts from our legislative agenda and detracts from what we're trying to deliver to the American people," Marc Short, Trump's White House director of legislative affairs, told reporters on Monday.
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    Stunted progress

    Short's blunt comments echo what Republicans in the White House and on Capitol Hill have said in private about the continual drip, drip, drip of controversies coming from the White House. With only so many hours to work each week, the controversies have forced Republicans to spend time responding to Trump stories and protecting the party, leaving them largely unable to move legislation through a contentious Congress.
    Trump's flagging approval rating -- 37% in the most recent Gallup poll -- is at or near historic lows for this early in his presidency, a fact that has not helped the issue. Public disapproval has hardened Trump's opposition, giving Democrats hope for the future and has provided some Republicans the cover to stand up to the President when needed.
    Democrats learned early on in Trump's presidency that there is no upside to working with the contentious leader. Special and primary elections this year have found Democrats trumpeting their opposition to Trump, not their willingness to work with him. And Democrats on Capitol Hill have done the same, disavowing Trump more than working with him.
    "In all honesty, I think it's a stalled Congress," Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told CNN's Manu Raju on Tuesday. "So the President's going to have to lead. Tweeting doesn't help, but Congress is more broken than just his tweets."
    To spur his legislative agenda, Trump will meet with House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Majority Whip Steve Scalise, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn Tuesday afternoon, according to a White House official.
    The meeting will focus on health care, tax reform and next steps in the President's agenda, Short said.
    Republicans, like Graham, are hopeful that the meeting will lead to more coordination between the White House and Capitol Hill.
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    GOP future on the line

    These congressional leaders also have their futures on the line. Failing to get much done during Trump's first year in office, when Trump's power is at its highest, could mean GOP disaster in the 2018 midterm election. Democrats, invigorated by a sputtering Trump, have already began laying out plans to target vulnerable Republicans whose future relies on Trump's popularity and effectiveness.
    Later Tuesday, Trump will have dinner with Sens. Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, Cory Gardner and Todd Young and Reps. Lee Zeldin and Francis Rooney, according to the same official. The focus of that meeting will be the President's recent foreign trip and foreign policy.
    Trump's renewed focus on his legislative agenda comes days before one of the most consequential moments in Trump's presidency, when Comey heads to Capitol Hill to testify about his conversations with Trump and memos he kept about requests the President made to him. The hearing before the Senate intelligence committee could be the most watched moment of the year in Washington, largely thwarting any momentum Republicans had hoped for on tax reform or infrastructure spending.
    Short said that the White House believes Trump "is often very effective in driving our message in Congress" despite the fact he does "not have a conventional of style."
    "Many of his efforts are extremely helpful to us in getting our legislation accomplished," Short said.
    But months into his administration, Trump's top legislative achievement is getting health care reform through the Republican-controlled House, a feat that took two attempts after the first failed to garner enough conservative support. The bill has all but stalled in the Senate.
    Senate Republicans have been slowly piecing together health care legislation, but are tamping down expectations that they will have a bill anytime soon. Even if the bill passes the Senate, Graham said Tuesday that the prospects of finding agreement with the House is slim.
    "We led off with health care, which I thought was a mistake," Graham said. "We'll probably have a vote on a health care bill, but the chance of the House and the Senate reconciling our positions on health care is pretty limited."
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    Stepping on his own messaging

    To combat the idea that Trump's momentum is stalled, the White House has begun to set up a series of week-long policy pushes to spur movement. A White House official told CNN on Saturday that Trump would focus on infrastructure for the following week, including trips to Ohio and the Department of Transportation office in Washington.
    That plan was quickly undercut on Monday morning when Trump published a series of tweets attacking his own Justice Department, reaffirming his belief that his immigration plan is a travel ban and blasting the mayor of London, who is currently working to steer his city though the aftermath of a terrorist attack.
    The tweets ensured that Monday's focus was on Trump's personal messages, not his policy proposals.
    "Unfortunately, the President has, I think, created problems for himself by his Twitter habit," said Cornyn, who will meet with Trump Tuesday, told a local Texas radio station on Monday.
    Even still, the White House staged a series of photo ops on infrastructure, including a pseudo-signing ceremony Monday that had the President putting pen to paper on a letter that urged Congress to pass a bill that privatized the nation's air traffic controllers.
    Despite the fanfare, which included a speech and a ceremonial pen, Congress has no obligation to follow anything Trump signed at the event. And with no incentive to help Trump, Democrats are unlikely to get behind the plan.