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Trump touts his actions since taking office in speech to Congress

President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. (Jim Lo Scalzo / Associated Press)
By Sean Sullivan, Abby Phillip and Mike Debonis Washington Post

In a wide-ranging speech covering his accomplishments since taking office, President Donald Trump delivered his his first address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, laying out the agenda for his presidency and, in broad terms, his vision for the country.

He touted “billions” in new investments by American companies in the weeks since his inauguration, seeking to highlight the actions his administration has taken to keep his campaign promises.

Trump highlighted new lobbying restrictions, and executive orders he put in place to reduce regulations, restart halted oil and gas pipelines, and crack down on illegal immigration.

“Above all else, we will keep our promises to the American people,” Trump said, speaking before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night.

He vowed to usher in “historic” tax reform, as he appeared to nod to a House Republican “border adjustment” plan, but did not explicitly endorse it.

“Currently, when we ship products out of America, many other countries make us pay very high tariffs and taxes – but when foreign companies ship their products into America, we charge them nothing or almost nothing,” said Trump.

The “border adjustment” is shorthand for a House GOP proposal to tax imports, which some Republicans oppose. Trump didn’t use those words in his address. But his remarks could be seen as a hopeful sign for those Republicans hoping he will back it unequivocally.

Trump’s comments were received with some bipartisan applause and some jeers from Democrats, especially during his mention of a lobbying restriction that some feel does not go far enough.

He also pressed his policies on immigration, including his controversial proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We want all Americans to succeed – but that can’t happen in an environment of lawless chaos. We must restore integrity and the rule of law at our borders,” said Trump. “For that reason, we will soon begin the construction of a great wall along our southern border. It will be started ahead of schedule and, when finished, it will be a very effective weapon against drugs and crime.”

Trump challenged members of Congress who disagree with him: “I would ask you this question: what would you say to the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or a loved one, because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders?”

He did call for Republicans and Democrats to work toward reforming the immigration system into a merit-based program focused on the “well-being of American citizens.”

Trump argued that the country’s current focus on low-skilled immigration hurts American workers and strains the country’s finances.

The comments come hours after Trump said in a meeting with journalists that he would support comprehensive immigration reform efforts with a pathway to legalization for law abiding immigrants.

At his remarks before Congress, Trump did not specify the parameters of a compromise he would be willing to accept. But he outlined a preference for a system that favors immigrants who are able to support themselves financially.

“I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws,” Trump said.

Trump also vowed to take on “radical Islamic terrorism,” a divisive term that many have taken issue, arguing it unfairly singles out the Muslim religion.

He also pledged to announce new steps to bolster national security and “keep out those who would do us harm,” weeks after his executive order barring immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries was halted by a federal judge.

Pointing to statistics on terror convictions by foreigners from the Department of Justice, Trump said that it was “reckless” to allow foreigners into the country who could then perpetrate attacks on Americans.

“We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America – we cannot allow our Nation to become a sanctuary for extremists,” Trump said.

The comments drew mixed reaction from the gathered lawmakers.

Though Trump did not specifically mention the travel ban, he suggested that new efforts to put in place “improved vetting procedures” would be forthcoming.

He began the night by strongly denouncing recent threats to Jewish community centers across the country and condemned a recent attack on Indian immigrants in Kansas.

“We are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” Trump said.

His speech quickly turned, however, as he declared that the “earth shifted beneath our feet” in 2016 as he took a victory lap over his election victory and nodded to his signature campaign themes.

“The chorus became an earthquake – and the people turned out by the tens of millions, and they were all united by one very simple, but crucial demand, that America must put its own citizens first,” said Trump.

He then began to list the steps his administration has taken since the Jan. 20 inauguration to fulfill the promises he made on the campaign trail.

The White House signaled to congressional Republicans Tuesday that Trump will not endorse specific policy ideas on at least a pair of issues that have sharply divided his party.

Trump’s team distributed talking points to Capitol Hill Republicans on Tuesday afternoon, sketching out a speech in which the president would emphasize his general positions on the economy, health care, education and foreign policy.

The talking points, however, did not offer any additional clarity on whether the president supports a “border adjustment” tax reform proposal and what his preferred road map to repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act looks like – two things many Republican lawmakers are eager to hear.

Additionally, a top White House aide briefed GOP congressional staffers on the address, telling them not to expect specific policy endorsements on those fronts, according to a Republican in attendance who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The briefing was first reported by Politico.

The speech comes at a time when Republicans are looking for leadership through some political and policy thickets. On health care, tax reform and federal spending, GOP lawmakers hold differences of opinion that are obstructing passage of ambitious Republican policies, and so far Trump has shown little desire to referee those disputes openly.

The discord was on display as Trump prepared to deliver his prime-time speech. Many Republican members said this week that they are eager for Trump to provide clear marching orders and engage with them directly on his ambitious pledges.

The talking points, which were shared on condition of anonymity by two Republican recipients, including the person who attended the briefing, state: “Congress must repeal Obamacare and replace it with a system that expands choice, increases access and lowers costs.”

They also say that Americans with preexisting conditions must continue to have coverage; the public should have the freedom to purchase insurance in a national marketplace; and that “we must smooth the transition for Americans currently” in the health-care exchanges established under the Affordable Care Act.“

But there are competing ideas on Capitol Hill about how to repeal and replace the federal health-care law. And Trump is not expected to definitively resolve the disputes Tuesday night, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told the GOP staffers at the briefing, according to the person who attended.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The president intends to deliver ”historic tax reform“ and ”fair trade,“ according to the talking points. But they don’t state whether he explicitly supports the ”border adjustment,“ which is shorthand for a House GOP proposal to tax imports, which other Republicans oppose.

The president, according to the talking points, is also expected to mention education – ”every child must have access to a quality education, no matter their Zip code“ – and foreign policy – ”We support NATO, but our partners must meet their financial obligations,“ they say.

Democrats, meanwhile, are using the address as an opportunity to take fresh aim at Trump’s agenda, which has stoked controversy and drawn fierce protests across the country. They are focusing particularly closely on the president’s efforts to undo key parts of the Affordable Care Act and his hard-line policies on immigration and border security.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), who has been on the aisle of the House chamber for every presidential address to Congress for nearly three decades, announced on the House floor Tuesday that he has ”decided not to stand on aisle of the House chamber to shake the president’s hand“ this time. He said he made his decision because the administration has shown ”no interest“ in working with Congress to address the country’s problems.

Democratic leaders have selected former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear to deliver the official response to Trump’s speech. Supporters of the ACA have often pointed to Kentucky as a model for successful implementation of the law.

”So far, every Republican idea to ‘replace’ the Affordable Care Act would reduce the number of Americans covered, despite promises to the contrary,“ Beshear plans to say, according to excerpts of his speech released Tuesday evening.

Astrid Silva, an immigration activist and a ”dreamer,“ will deliver the Spanish-language response to Trump’s speech.

The lack of direction from the new president – who is defining his own brand of Republicanism – is making it harder for Hill Republicans to coalesce around the specifics of their own priorities.

One big area of dissonance is the health-care system, where House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has outlined a series of potential changes to the ACA that have so far failed to unite the rank and file. Replacing Obamacare has been a signature campaign promise for congressional Republicans over the seven years since it was enacted.

”We’re doing this step by step,“ Ryan said Tuesday on NBC’s ”Today“ show. ”This is how the legislative process is supposed to be designed. We’re not hatching some bill in a backroom and plopping it on the American people’s front door.“

Among the possibilities being floated are replacing Obama-era tax subsidies – which phase out for wealthier Americans – with age-adjusted tax credits available to all individuals regardless of income. The Ryan plan also targets the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, ramping it down over a series of years in a plan that could possibly grandfather in low-income individuals who now use the program for coverage.

”The draft proposals are proposals that have been created by a consensus in the Senate and the House,“ said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. ”We’ve had a bicameral working group for more than a month.“

But that consensus did not include a trio of conservative senators known for bucking party leaders. Nor did it include the heads of influential groups of House conservatives.

”Conservatives are for complete repeal,“ said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). He said the emerging plan in the House is ”incomplete repeal,“ which he would vote against.

Paul exited a Senate GOP policy lunch alongside Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), who have also called for a sweeping repeal of the law.

”I think rolling out a massive new entitlement program is not the right way to go,“ Cruz said when asked about the idea of tax credits. Cruz said he would wait to see the final details of the plan before assessing it.

House conservative leaders said Monday that they were dismayed by aspects of the GOP leadership plan – including the tax credits and a proposal to pay for them by rolling back the existing income tax deduction for employer-provided insurance.

”The way it’s put forth would actually take the number of tax credits from 9.5 million people that get a subsidy today and potentially increase it to 40 million people,“ said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. ”We’re going to pay for that by putting a tax on union workers and middle-class workers that happen to have good employer insurance. That dog doesn’t hunt.“

Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the larger Republican Study Committee, said Monday he saw ”serious problems“ with the current plan and could not recommend that his group’s members support it, saying it ”risks continuing major Obamacare entitlement expansions and delays any reforms.“

”We’ve got to have more information,“ he said in an interview. ”As it stands right now, we have a real problem with the Medicaid expansion“ that he believes would be phased out too slowly.

Republicans were equally fractured over the first elements of Trump’s spending plans. Many Republicans cheered a budget skeleton sketched out Monday by White House budget director Mick Mulvaney that would add $54 billion in defense spending while cutting the same amount from nondefense programs.

The general plan was in line with GOP pledges and marks the beginning of a months-long process to hammer out the final numbers. Yet budget and defense hawks, as well as appropriators, all raised concerns about the details.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) dismissed the budget proposal Monday as an insufficient step toward Trump’s pledge to shore up the military.

”With a world on fire, America cannot secure peace through strength with just 3 percent more than President Obama’s budget,“ McCain said in a statement. ”We can and must do better.“

Some GOP appropriators, meanwhile, questioned whether nondefense cuts of that scale would be feasible.

”There is more to our government than just defense,“ said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development. ”What are you going to do, go out and cut half of (National Institutes of Health) funding? That’s pretty popular not only in Congress but around the country.“

The early spending outline also crashed into concerns from conservatives who worried that Trump was focused on cutting spending from the relatively small pool of discretionary spending rather than concentrating on overhauling costly entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Those two mandatory programs made up nearly $1.5 trillion in federal spending last year. The nondefense programs targeted by Trump cost $600 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Ryan has pledged to separately target Medicaid, which cost $588 billion last year. But that program pales in comparison to the long-term cost of administering the programs Trump has vowed to protect.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin stoked those concerns Sunday when he said entitlement cuts were off the table in the upcoming spending blueprint.

”We are not touching those now,“ Mnuchin said in an interview on Fox News. ”We are very focused on other aspects and that’s what’s very important to us. And that’s the president’s priority.“

Republicans in Congress have largely dismissed Trump’s pledge not to touch the programs. Many say Trump actually intends to support their plans for reform. Ryan suggested Tuesday that Trump agreed with his own assessment that Social Security and Medicare would ultimately have to be rolled back for younger Americans. ”I believe he does,“ he said on NBC.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said Tuesday that he expects that Trump will turn his attention to a long debate on entitlements sometime after this budget is complete.

”You can’t have someone who has just been in office for six weeks deciding on major things,“ Enzi said. ”It has to be part of a national discussion.“