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While Trump's away, Congress legislates?

John T. Bennett, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump spent the first four days of his Asia swing focused on countering North Korea and bolstering trade relationships -- and some Republican members who are eager to pass a tax bill are just fine with that.

The way they see it, Trump being nearly 7,000 miles away for most of the next two weeks will allow them to make more progress on their tax legislation than if he were in Washington. That's because Trump is often hunkered down in the White House watching cable news reports about their efforts, his phone at the ready to fire off a tweet that could substantially delay or completely derail their work.

GOP members in recent days have acknowledged that the president's out-of-the-blue tweets and phone calls to certain members at all hours are not always helpful to the legislative process. Trump's tweets in particular often bring course-altering policy demands -- some even amounting to flip-flops by the president -- that could throw his party's own tax writers into scramble mode, especially as they race to meet a Thanksgiving deadline for the House to finish its bill.

While response from GOP lawmakers interviewed for this article was mixed, many were candid in saying Trump's absence is something of a blessing as they get down to the complicated details of reworking the tax code.

"It's a diversion," said Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, a former governor, referring to Trump's tweets. "And, in that regard, counterproductive. Legislative bodies are easily diverted."

New York Rep. Peter T. King, who is leaning no on the tax bill but has been a guest of Trump's on Air Force One, said the president's policy demand tweets "can upset the flow" of GOP members' work on major bills.

"It's a mixed blessing," King said of Trump's tendency to weigh in on legislation at critical junctures. On the one hand, they get a clear view of what it would take to garner his signature; on the other, it can push them back a step or two.

Another such key moment will come next week, when House GOP leaders insist their tax bill will reach the chamber floor. Trump is slated to return to Washington late next week, perhaps just as the House is preparing to vote. That timing worries some GOP members, including King.

Anything is possible when it comes to what Trump might tweet as his attention on the flight home turns from negotiating with world leaders to the House tax bill -- "especially if he calls the bill mean," King said with a smirk, referring to Trump's description in the spring of a House-passed health care bill. Trump had wholeheartedly endorsed that effort before switching course and slamming it as the Senate worked on its own version.

Even those who say Trump's tactics are not a major distraction, such as House Ways and Means member Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, acknowledged that presidential tweets make an impact.

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