Less than two months on the job, President Donald Trump is showing that when it comes to wooing members of Congress, he’s no Barack Obama.
Where Obama was usually reserved and met sparingly with lawmakers, Trump has launched a full-out charm offensive, much of it aimed at bolstering the beleaguered Republican Obamacare plan.
Trump “was talking about how we all got to work together,” said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who was part of a group of House Republican vote-counters who met Trump Tuesday in the White House. “He even said at one point, ‘Maybe we should meet once a week. Maybe we should meet every four days!’”
His press to get an Obamacare repeal and replacement passed will provide a test of whether Trump’s enthusiastic glad-handing can help him overcome hard-edged ideological divisions within his own party.
It’s unclear whether his courting of lawmakers will sway any votes, and he may still have to switch gears and starting being tougher on GOP holdouts. But his personal salesmanship may be the only way that Republicans can pass their Obamacare bill, given the strong negative reaction from conservatives and the strong opposition from groups representing doctors, hospitals and the elderly. Early Wednesday morning, the bill experienced its first success, as the House Ways and Means Committee voted 23-16 to approve its portion of the proposal.
Trump’s early outreach on a wide range of issues has included Republican leaders, conservatives who opposed him in the election and leading Democrats. On Wednesday evening, he dined with Texas Senator Ted Cruz — and his wife — a far cry from when the pair traded bitter personal attacks as rivals during the presidential primary.
‘Wooing Each Other’
The president also called Senator Rand Paul to discuss the Kentucky Republican’s opposition to the Obamacare plan.
“I think we’re wooing each other,” said Paul, a former Trump presidential primary foe, adding that the president sounded open to his ideas.
The Republican vote-counters who met with Trump on Tuesday came away impressed by his openness and spontaneity.
As they introduced themselves one-by-one around a long table at the White House, Trump suddenly chimed in.
“Youngest woman ever elected to Congress!” the president blurted out just before the 32-year-old Representative Elise Stefanik of New York managed to give out her name, according to Cole.
“He’s great like that. He’s interacting with members. He’s funny,” said Cole, who had himself been greeted by Trump in a personal fashion earlier.
“I walked in, and he said, ‘You, you’re great on television. Isn’t this guy great on television? He’s got a face made for television!’” he recounted. And throughout the meeting, aimed at discussing how the president could help congressional Republicans get their health bill to his desk, Cole said of Trump, “He was on top of it. He was energetic.”
Oval Office Tour
Representative Tom Marino of Pennsylvania recalled another recent meeting of House Republicans at the White House.
“We’re all sitting around,” he said, and Trump suddenly asks, “You’ve never been in the Oval Office?”
“And we say, no. And he says, ‘C’mon, I’ll take you around,’” said Marino.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday that the president is purposefully engaging lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to seek solutions and areas of compromise on a variety of issues, including a replacement for Obamacare.
“This is a president who is going to engage with everybody who can help join in proposing ideas and thoughts and opinions on how to move the country forward,” Spicer said.
On Thursday, Republican Representative Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania and other lawmakers are headed to the White House for a bowling outing — during which Trump is expected to make an appearance, said Kelly’s spokesman Tom Qualtere.
Kelly was one of the earliest House Trump supporters. But Qualtere said he understands this is the beginning of what could be monthly, or even weekly, bowling get-togethers for lawmakers at the executive residence.
By contrast, Obama had a reputation for keeping lawmakers — both Republicans and fellow Democrats — at a distance, rather than cultivating friendships or personal relationships on either side of the aisle. Obama’s aides downplayed that criticism as unfair, and the one-time senator from Illinois did invite lawmakers over for official meetings or rare social gatherings.
Obama famously joked in 2013 that “some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress” and chide him for not getting drinks with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “Really?” Obama laughed. “Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?” But the following year, when Republicans retook control of the Senate, Obama said he’d enjoy having a bourbon with McConnell sometime after all.
Obama did put on his own charm offensive to round up votes for his $800 billion economic stimulus measure, holding private meetings with swing-vote Republicans including Senator Susan Collins of Maine. He also hosted a bipartisan cocktail reception at the White House and later hosted 15 lawmakers from both chambers at a Super Bowl party, where he passed around freshly baked cookies.
Talking to Critics
But Trump has shown unexpected energy in reaching out to his GOP critics and Democrats.
On Wednesday, for example, Trump met with Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland to talk about rising prescription drug prices. Cummings has been a strong critic of Trump, accusing him of conflicts of interest with his business and calling for several investigations.
Still, the pair had talked on the phone in January, when Cummings said he and Trump found out they “had more in common than differences.” During Wednesday’s meeting, the White House said Trump indicated a desire work with Cummings in a bipartisan fashion to ensure prescription drug prices are more affordable.
During the meeting, Trump also offered his condolences to a longtime Cummings staffer, who lost six of her children in January in a tragic house fire.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a frequent Trump critic, was himself summoned for a private lunch with the president Tuesday, one day after House Republicans rolled out their new health plan.
While the two spoke about replacing Obamacare, Graham said they spent more time talking about other issues he cares about — China’s currency manipulation, immigration policy and reinstating the U.S. Export-Import Bank. The bank helps finance exports for companies like Boeing Co., which has a big presence in Graham’s home state of South Carolina.
Trump made no commitments on any policies, Graham said, but the president was clearly looking for the potential to cut some deals in the future.
“He’s in a deal-making mode,” Graham said. “He’s conservative but he’s not ideological. Most of these deals around here fall apart because of ideological objections. There’s actually a chance for President Trump to do things you could never get another Republican to do.”
Graham said he encouraged Trump to do more such meetings. “He’s very charming,” added the senator, who ran against Trump in last year’s Republican presidential primary.
Trump also had an Oval Office meeting Wednesday with Republican Lisa Murkowski, a possible holdout on the GOP Obamacare plan who has shown some independence by voting against the president’s pick for education secretary. The pair met with fellow Alaska Republican Senator Dan Sullivan and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Cole, who said he had a good relationship with Obama, said he thinks Trump actually enjoys his interactions with lawmakers. And he hopes Trump’s ability to connect with lawmakers will eventually “expand out to Democrats” — though he says Trump’s first victories, such as possibly on health care, will have to be largely partisan.
“I think he’s relishing the idea of talking to people, and bringing them to the White House, and putting them on Air Force One, and all that,” he said.
“And it actually builds loyalty very quickly. I mean, everybody likes to be singled out in front of a group by the president,” said Cole.
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